January 21 is the national holiday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. February is Black History month. The Civil Rights movement, and the evil of segregation which it fought, have many inspiring lessons for our current struggle to achieve justice for the unborn. One of the signs carried by Negroes who peacefully marched for their rights said, simply, “I am a Man.”
The need for society to rediscover the humanity of its oppressed members is a key link between the Civil Rights movement and the pro-life movement.
In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the march on Washington on August 28, 1963, Dr. King used a vivid image which today is just as applicable to the unborn:
We've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation. And so we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
The pro-life movement refuses to believe that there are “insufficient funds” for the unborn. We refuse to believe that somehow our nation is incapable of opening the doors of equal protection to the tiniest and youngest of human beings.
It is also helpful for us to recall the criticism Dr. King — now a national hero — once endured for the demonstrations he organized. These criticisms came from clergy who, while agreeing with Dr. King's ultimate goal, disagreed with his strategy. Those clergy wrote to him,
We are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely. We agree rather with certain local Negro leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area.
Dr. King's response was his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In it he wrote,
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham, but your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative…You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
Again, the same answer must be given today to those who fail to see the value of pro-life demonstrations.
Finally, the following word to the clergy was spoken by Dr. King at his last speech before he was assassinated:
I'm always happy to see a relevant ministry. It's alright to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's alright to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.
We cannot afford to let our preaching become disconnected from the injustices around us. That is why we cannot afford to be silent about abortion, just as the preachers in Dr. King's day could not afford to be silent about segregation.
Fr. Pavone is the National Director of Priests for Life. You may contact Priests for Life at PO Box 141172, Staten Island, NY 10314; Tel: 888-PFL-3448 or 718-980-4400; Fax: 718-980-6515; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.priestsforlife.org.