Mildred Jefferson: right to life “the cause of all those who care about fairness & justice”

“Dr. Jefferson was sitting at our table and wearing one of her trademark stylish hats. She had an air of natural dignity and depth that made me suspect that we were in the company of quiet greatness. Little did [we] know at the time that she was an American history maker and ground breaker for African Americans and women.”


That’s from the blog of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, written shortly after the death of Dr. Mildred Jefferson in 2010. Dr. Jefferson had served MCFL as president, among her many other pro-life activities. From the same blog post come these words written by Dr. Jefferson in 1977.

“We come together from all parts of our land … We come rich and poor, proud and plain, religious and agnostic, politically committed and independent. … the right-to-life cause is not the concern of only a special few but it should be the cause of all those who care about fairness and justice, love and compassion and liberty with law …”

Mildred Jefferson became active in the pro-life movement for the simplest of reasons: someone asked her. Pre-Roe v. Wade, the American Medical Association took a position deferring to increasingly-“liberalized” state laws on abortion. Dr. Jefferson was a surgeon by profession, and a fellow physician asked her to sign a petition objecting to the AMA’s move. The rest is history.

(Something to think about: have you invited anyone lately to get involved?)

Dr. Jefferson’s papers are held at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute of Harvard University (she was a graduate of Harvard Medical School). The mini-biography that accompanies her papers offers a glimpse into her activities. A partial list: one of the founders of Massachusetts Citizens for Life and the National Right to Life Committee, twice a candidate for U.S. Senate and once for the Eighth Congressional District, active with Americans United for Life Legal Defense Fund and Black Americans for Life, expert witness in court cases, and provider of expert testimony on legislation at every level from federal to municipal.

She assisted New Hampshire activists by coming to testify on life-issue bills. I asked New Hampshire Rep. Kathy Souza and former Rep. Phyllis Woods for some of their recollections. “She gave everything she had for the life rights of unborn babies, including her practice as a surgeon,” Souza told me. “She never complained, but always had a peaceful assurance that she was right in her pursuit of the truth and the right to life and let nothing discourage her. She always showed an inner confidence and was an inspiration. She came to speak for NHRTL at St. Casimir’s in Nashua back in the seventies.  My favorite image of her is the hat she was wearing then  — came to know it as part of her — a small hat, perched rather jauntily, but dignified.”

Woods recalls, “She took that Hippocratic Oath to the final degree. I remember when she was a speaker at the New Hampshire march for life in Concord. I was so impressed because she was going to run for Ted Kennedy’s seat. I thought ‘wow! What a gutsy woman!’ She was an awesome speaker.”

Souza adds, “She always managed to get in her favorite saying, that life should not be only for the ‘planned, the perfect, the privileged.'”

(c) Ellen Kolb/Leaven for the Loaf, 2016

 

Their trip was snowed out – so these students marched for life at home

“The truth doesn’t stop being the truth just because it’s hidden.” —Fr. Paul Soper

The Archdiocese of Boston cancelled its buses to the March for Life in Washington, D.C. , bowing to the weather forecast. More than four hundred students who had planned to be marching to the U.S. Supreme Court with fellow pro-lifers found themselves spending January 22 at home.

Instead of shrugging and saying “oh, well…”, these students along with workers for the Archdiocese brought their March for Life to Boston. Here’s the three-minute video they made, showing how they turned a cancelled trip into an enthusiastic and peaceful Boston witness for life.


 

He Said It: Ryan Bomberger of The Radiance Foundation

Bomberger quote


Affirming nonviolence, then and now

Kneeling Ministers, in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park, a civil rights memorial. The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Kneeling Ministers, in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, a civil rights memorial. The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1963, a few months before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, he and many other civil rights activists converged on Birmingham, Alabama to challenge racial segregation. Their campaign was marked by intensive planning and discipline, because the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was intent not only on a message but on delivering it the right way. Volunteers for the Birmingham campaign were screened and trained, as King recounted in Why We Can’t Wait. He noted, “Every volunteer was required to sign a Commitment Card.”

To what did the Birmingham activists commit?

I hereby pledge myself – my person and body – to the nonviolent movement. Therefore I will keep the following ten commandments:

  1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
  2. Remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory.
  3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
  4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
  5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
  6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
  8. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
  9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  10. Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain of the demonstration

King added, “We made it clear that we would not send anyone out to demonstrate who had not convinced himself and us that he could accept and endure violence without retaliating” during the campaign. That took guts. It meant putting aside the natural right of self-defense during the demonstration, even as they faced people who had no qualms about using violence, including bombs.

True, Anyone could sign a piece of paper (or in this age, click on “I agree”). So why bother? Because, then and now, nonviolence during a public demonstration isn’t something to take for granted. Public affirmation reinforces personal commitment. Public affirmation is part of accountability to the larger community. It draws a clear line between those protesting peacefully and those willing to resort to violence to impede them.

Today, 40 Days for Life campaigns challenge abortion and affirm the right to life. The founders of 40DFL are Christian, and the program is grounded in Christian spirituality and a commitment to nonviolence. One requirement for participants is signing the 40DFL statement of peace. Without that commitment, one is not a participant, even if standing on the sidewalk outside an abortion facility during a 40 DFL campaign. Here it is.

I testify to the following:

  • I will only pursue peaceful solutions to the violence of abortion when volunteering with the 40 Days for Life campaign
  • I will show compassion and reflect Christ’s love to all abortion facility or Planned Parenthood employees, volunteers, and customers
  • I understand that acting in a violent or harmful manner immediately and completely disassociates me from the 40 Days for Life campaign
  • I am in no way associated with Planned Parenthood, its affiliates or any abortion provider

While standing in the public right-of-way in front of the abortion facility or Planned Parenthood location:

  • I will not obstruct the driveways or sidewalk while standing in the public right of way
  • I will not litter on the public right-of-way
  • I will closely attend to any children I bring to the prayer vigil
  • I will not threaten, physically contact, or verbally abuse abortion facility or Planned Parenthood employees, volunteers or customers
  • I will not damage private property
  • I will cooperate with local authorities

As I sign on once again for 40DFL – for the Statement of Peace must be reaffirmed with each new campaign – I want to take the Birmingham commitment to heart as well. There are no doubt those who will take umbrage at any suggestion that today’s pro-life movement is part of the civil rights movement that came to flower at that March on Washington in ’63. In reply, I can only avow that life is the fundamental civil and human right. Abortion takes lives, and there are businesses that profit from it. Let peaceful public witness to that continue.

I don’t pretend to have endured the physical abuse to which the Birmingham demonstrators were subjected. Their example is awesome even fifty years on. They faced police dogs and fire hoses, and still made a commitment to nonviolent public witness and action. The best way for me to honor their memory is to emulate them, even though I’ve faced nothing worse so far than name-calling.

Recall that the nonviolent demonstrators in Birmingham were far from passive. There was urgency in their goal of justice and reconciliation. From a 1963 UPI report on the Birmingham demonstrations: “King reacted strongly, however, to a statement by Attorney General Robert Kennedy suggesting that the all-out integration drive here was ill-timed. ‘I grow weary of those who ask us to slow down,’ King told a reporter. ‘I begin to feel that the moderates in America are our worst enemy.'”

The events and words of 1963 aren’t frozen in place, devoid of application to our own times. View them not as an archaeologist views a dig, but as a traveler views a map: take this path, not that one. I could do worse than follow the people who signed those cards in Birmingham.


Six weeks to next 40DFL campaign

The next 40 Days for Life campaign begins September 23, and signups are open. For more information on the Manchester NH campaign, go to 40daysforlife.com/Manchester. You can follow their Facebook page at facebook.com/4Odaysforlife [that’s a capital “O” next to the 4].

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