THIS IS WHERE it was always bound to end: at the base, not the summit, of the political pyramid. The acceptance of racial equality. The recognition of a woman’s right to choose. These are battles that have to be won on the ground and in the ballot boxes, not at the Supreme Court Of The United States.
Dr Martin Luther King understood this necessity better than most of his white supporters. The whole point of his campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience was to produce not only political but spiritual transformation.
Nonviolence certainly ennobles those who practice it, but of equal importance is the impact on those who resist its objectives. Against the hardened shells of unrepentant racists the disciplined sacrifice of the civil rights activists make no impression. But these lost souls are fewer in number than many reformers suppose.
What many knee-jerk racists saw happening in the streets and at lunch counters across the South gave them pause. It made them think. And when they learned about the children killed in the Birmingham bombing, it made them ashamed.
This was precisely the response Dr King was hoping to evoke. The fight he was engaged in was for the souls of the whites who had been raised to see African-Americans as something less than truly human. He knew the battle for racial equality would never be won until his movement had made the process of dehumanisation morally repugnant – not only to decent America, but also to its indecent bigots. Only when these ‘good ole boys’ no longer had the stomach for repression would the Civil War finally be over.
The great tragedy of the Civil Rights Movement was that it required a measure of patience and forbearance beyond the reach of all but a handful of very special human-beings. The race-riots of the mid-Sixties: in Watts, Detroit and Newark; were catastrophic to Dr King’s cause. “Burn, baby, burn!” let White America off the hook. The violence and destruction, no matter how egregiously provoked by racist police officers, reconfirmed all the old racial prejudices.
Ultimately, Dr King’s moral struggle failed. Supreme Court rulings might compel racism to adapt, but they could not kill it.
Something very similar happened in relation to the struggle for the right of women to control their own fertility. The protagonists for abortion never truly plumbed the depths of their opponents’ determination to overturn the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision, referred to simply as “Roe v. Wade”, which decriminalised terminations in the first trimester of a woman’s pregnancy.
At the heart of the “Pro-Life” cause was something much darker than conservative religious dogma, or even the oppressive designs of “The Patriarchy”. The enduring motivation – which dares not declare itself openly – is the paranoid conviction of male white supremacists that if “their” women are given personal control of their wombs, then white Americans will soon be “outbred” by Blacks and Hispanics.
The family size of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants has been steadily shrinking for generations. The United States of America, which these “WASPs” regard as their own, could not be permitted to fall under the sway of ethnicities typically producing larger families. Not for nothing did the Far-Right demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, greet Black, Hispanic and Jewish counter-demonstrators with chants of: “You will not replace us!”
It is surely instructive that the legal grounds for protecting American women’s right to abortion is located in the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. Passed by Congress in 1866, this amendment guaranteed the bodily liberty of America’s former slaves, along with the “equal protection of the laws”.
The Supreme Court has found that without individual privacy, individual liberty is rendered legally unintelligible. Private decisions about what we do with our bodies, and who we choose to perform those acts with, cannot be the proper business of federal and state legislators.
To revoke Roe v. Wade not only strikes at the heart of women’s freedom, but at the bodily freedom of all Americans.
To “breed” slaves it was necessary to impose a tyranny of terrifying intimacy. Neither the womb, nor the child that issued from it, belonged to the female slave. White Supremacy’s need for this intimate tyranny endures, extending now to the wombs of all American women. With the Supreme Court under its sway, the struggle for America’s soul must toil upwards.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 May 2022.