On Tuesday of this week, I joined women’s-rights activists in Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the most restrictive abortion law in the country, which was signed into law by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey on May 15. Extremist legislators in Alabama have one-upped Republican colleagues in Georgia, Ohio, Missouri, Louisiana, and Mississippi, all of whom also passed unconstitutional anti-abortion measures in recent weeks. While the Supreme Court signaled again this week that it is not willing to take a case that would overturn Roe v. Wade, these bills are designed to rally a “pro-life” movement that has organized for the past 40 years toward this single goal. The apparent political success of this movement under the Trump administration, however, has exposed its fundamental hypocrisy: While trumpeting concern for the unborn, the “pro-life” coalition has consistently opposed policies that promote life and well-being for most of us.
Alabama is a case in point. There are 1.1 million poor white people in Alabama to just under a million poor people of color. Forty-five percent of the state’s residents are poor or low-income. That’s 60 percent of people of color, and 37 percent of white people—but 53 percent of all children, 47 percent of all women. Yet the “pro-life” politicians in Montgomery voted to override municipalities that tried to raise the minimum wage for working people in Alabama.
The political leadership in Alabama has spent the past 40 years telling Christian conservatives that they are standing up for the dignity of life. Yet 420,800 people remain uninsured as the legislature here refuses federal funds to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. In fact, if you make 320 dollars a month in Alabama, they refuse to allow you to apply for Medicaid.
The 29,881 tons of NOx annually emitted in Alabama are a leading cause of respiratory problems. Yet the “pro-life” coalition in this state and elsewhere continues to push for deregulation of corporations whose profits grow alongside their pollution.
If you pay attention to the states that are passing anti-abortion bills during the 2019 session to rally their base for 2020, you will notice that they are the same states that have passed voter-suppression measures since the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision invalidated the preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act. Folks in Alabama know that Shelby County, Alabama, was the plaintiff in that case, where “pro-life” politicians fought voting-rights protections that were won half a century earlier in Selma, Alabama. When those same politicians pass anti-abortion bills in states like Alabama, they are using the power they have gained by suppressing minority votes to signal that they are pro-life despite their opposition to living wages, health care, commonsense gun laws, and environmental protections. They are suppressing the vote because they know there is a new demographic in Alabama that if organized in fusion coalition can change the political electorate.
Standing on the steps of the Alabama statehouse this week, I remembered the words Dr. King spoke there at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March 54 years ago this spring: “It may be said of the Reconstruction era that the Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.”
The fusion coalition that mobilized to overthrow Jim Crow in Alabama and across the South in the civil-rights movement recognized the divide-and-conquer strategy of the plantation system and the ways it continued to use the moral covering of slaveholder religion to justify itself. Dr. King explained what was happening in 1965 in the context and contours of what had always been a strategy of those who want black, brown, indigenous, and white people divided.
How do we make sense of the hypocrisy of the governor and legislators pushing attacks on women’s rights in name of protecting life and morality? When the white power structure of Alabama and the South could no longer give poor white folks Jim Crow to eat, they partnered with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and gave them white values as “family values.” This so-called pro-life/pro-family movement has never been about caring for unborn children. It’s been a way of keeping white Christians in coalitions that don’t benefit most of them, but make them feel righteous and self-assured in their values.
The religious right has wanted to talk about the rights of unborn children for 40 years because unborn children can never talk back. But we can’t let them talk about their concern for life without asking why that concern is so lacking for people after they are born.
This is why the Poor People’s Campaign is linking up with people who are struggling for the rights of women, working people, the uninsured, immigrants, and poor people to shift the moral narrative in our public life. We must expose the hypocrisy of the so-called “pro-life” movement and bring about a revolution of values that unifies the majority of Americans around a moral agenda that lifts up the good of the whole.