A Broader Understanding of “Pro-Life”

I have often found myself cringing as “pro-life” advocates have stood outside abortion clinics, pleading for the rights of an unborn fetus, not because I like it that there are so many abortions, but because those who are “pro-life” seem, for the most part, to have such a narrow understanding of  what life is.

In fact, although pro-life advocates have put billboards up in urban neighborhoods, urging people in those neighborhoods to refrain from having abortions, it seems that these same advocates, once the babies in these neighborhoods are born into poverty and despair, pretty much ignore them.

Children who live in poverty, who are born in poverty, depend on the government for basic services, like food and health care. Children born into poverty have a higher chance of ending up in prison, because the schools in their neighborhoods are so bad and they end up giving up and dropping out of school.

According to the Children’s Defense Fund, a “cradle to prison” pipeline exists because children born into poverty – yet very much alive – suffer from abject poverty, inadequate health care, gaps in childhood development, disparate educational opportunities, “intolerable abuse and neglect,”  “unmet mental and emotional problems, rampant substance abuse,” and involvement in an overburdened , ineffective juvenile justice system, a system which looks at these children as a drain on society.

These children, very much alive, are despised once they come out of the womb. As a fetus, a poor child is cherished; the heartbeat of the fetus is used in commercial and religious attempts to get people to oppose abortion. Yet, there is no such drumbeat for these children, and for the things they need once they are born in order to have valuable and viable lives, once they are born.

There is something very wrong with this reality.

Martin Buber, a Jewish theologian and Zionist, wrote a powerful book, I and Thou, where he described how we as human beings objectify other human beings, presumably to protect ourselves, our thoughts, and our beliefs.

He believed that part of the problem in Israel was the inability and unwillingness of Jewish people to treat Arabs as fellow human beings, “it” as opposed to “thou.” An “it” has no feelings; it is an object, devoid of even the need for another human being to invest caring and compassion into. A “thou,” on the other hand, is a “fellow human being,” one with which one can develop an empathic relationship, based on the understanding that this “thou” has needs and feelings equal to that of the person doing the evaluating.

“I-it” relationships have made it possible for sexism, racism, homophobia, discrimination against the aged …to flourish. When we as humans do not see another human as human, we feel nothing about what we may or may not do to affirm that person’s worth and need to meet their needs.

That’s the feeling I get that the pro-life proponents carry with them. The poor are precious so long as they are in the womb. Once out, they are a bane to society, unworthy of anyone’s time or concern.

If the pro-life people would advocate as hard for quality education for poor children as they do for more affluent children, or push for legislation or some other source to provide for quality health care for these children, I wouldn’t care about their concern and love for the unborn fetus. Poor children do not ask to be born, and they are not responsible for their conditions. It is so hypocritical and sad for a civilized society to have such a narrow definition and appreciation for life.

A candid observation …

The Power of Children

Mighty Times: The Children's March
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I watched a movie called “Mighty Times: The Children’s March” at a training for executive directors for CDF Freedom Schools® Program this week, a movie which left me devastated and inspired at the same time.

I was devastated because of the base cruelty of what I saw, but I was inspired by the courage of children and the realization of how much power children have.

The movie chronicled the activities of the children of Birmingham, Alabama in May of  1963 who  decided that they were tired of being treated like second-class citizens. The Civil Rights movement, under the direction of Rev.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, was well underway, and another organization, the Congress of Racial Equality, under the direction of James Farmer, was also making waves in the Jim Crow South.

Both organizations were having a hard time knocking down the walls of segregation. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was training people in non-violent resistance.  Adherents to the non-violent movement were attempting to integrate lunch counters, and were being met with violence, but the incidents were not gaining national attention, at least not enough national attention to put pressure on the South to change its ways.

What the movement needed, leaders said, was for the jails to get filled up. That would draw the attention that was needed, but adult African-Americans could not risk losing their jobs by going to jail, even if it was for a good cause.

James Bevel, a member of SCLC and known to be more impatient than Dr. King for change to come,decided that it would have to be the children to fill the jails.He organized children to march in downtown Birmingham in order to get arrested.What happened was beyond the vision of anyone who was involved in the movement. The children…came in droves. Ignoring the pleas of their parents not to get involved, children, teens and young adults left schools and met in the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist church, singing and praying. They were released in groups of 50 to march downtown, and as they did, they were arrested.

Bull Connor was the mayor of Birmingham, and a rabid segregationist. He was known to drive around in a white tank. The actions of the “Negro” children, as blacks were called then, infuriated them. When arresting them did nothing to dissuade him, he ordered the children, some as young as 4 years old – to be hosed down with fire hoses, and also ordered them to be attacked by police dogs.

Still, the children came.

When there was no more room for them in city facilities, some were taken to animal pens at the state fairgrounds. It rained the night they were detained, and they had little to nothing to eat, but they were stalwart in their determination. The movie showed that some children were released from the animal pens in the dead of night …one at a time.

Because of how the children in Birmingham had been treated, the horrid pictures appearing on televisions all over the world, the back of Jim Crow was finally broken.  The President of the United States at the time, John F. Kennedy, made a speech later that week saying that it was time for segregation in this country to end. He had not wanted to bother much with the situation in the South, but the thousands of children who would not be stopped forced him to have to deal with the ugliness of racism.

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed a few months later, killing four little girls. The children had won a battle but the war based on racial hatred was yet to be won.

We were shown the movie to remind us why CDF Freedom Schools are not only important, but vital to under-served children. The children in Birmingham had been badly affected by segregation, but they had hope and drive and determination to, as the little four-year-old quoted in the film said, “be tree.” (He was so young he couldn’t even say the word “free” correctly.) Like the children in Soweto, South Africa, the children of Birmingham, Alabama gave the Civil Rights movement new momentum and purpose. Had the children not acted, one has to wonder what would be the state of African-Americans as concerns segregation today.

Because children, however, especially black and brown poor children, are plagued by circumstances beyond their control, Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children’s Defense Fund, began the Freedom Schools movement. It is, simply, an amazing program, which takes children at risk and makes them know that they can do anything they want – beginning with reading – and moving on. The program is run by the national CDF staff, but the classes in these schools are taught by college-aged kids many of whom learn, quite by accident, that they have a passion for reaching kids whom society has all but thrown away.

Children move, sing, dance, chant, cheer …and then read, their hearts on fire, their eyes bright, their dreams unleashed. CDF Freedom Schools Program has schools all over the country, and is constantly opening more,promoting, increasing literacy in children who might otherwise slip through the cracks.

It is as though the children who marched in Birmingham in 1963 are still singing, still marching, and now, pulling other children along, reminding them that it was through and because of children that a mean man, a mean system, and a mean culture was shaken to its core.

Children filled with faith and hope, and not despair, can change the world.

A candid observation…

Sometimes, when I notice things, it takes a minute for it all to register, for me to make sense – or realize that I cannot make sense – out of what I see.

That’s what happened last week. The world was shocked at the news of the death of Steve Jobs, our own American guru who arguably may have made the biggest difference in all of our lives than anyone since Thomas Edison or the Wright Brothers.

I was shocked and saddened; Jobs was fairly young and his genius will be missed.

But I was also saddened because two other people died last week who also changed the lives of many Americans and yet their deaths were hardly mentioned or even covered by the news: the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Prof. Derrick Bell.

Though they fought in different venues, both Shuttlesworth and Bell were fierce and tenacious soldiers in the battles for civil rights waged during the 60s and beyond. While Shuttlesworth faced overt violence and danger as he fought for basic civil rights of African Americans, including their right to vote, Bell fought a more insidious violence, that non-verbal racial animosity that keeps segregation a reality in the academy.

Shuttlesworth put his life on the line in the fight for justice; Bell put his livelihood on the line as he fought pristine educational establishments on their hiring practices which too often kept African Americans and women out of tenured positions.

Shuttlesworth was a Christian minister; Bell was the first African American to earn tenure at Harvard University, a position he sacrificed for his beliefs.

The omission of mention of the deaths of these two men bothered me so much that I ended up tweeting Anderson Cooper, asking him if CNN was seriously not going to cover these stories? Though I did not see or hear reports all that day, I was told they were done …

But the “below the fold” attitude regarding the deaths of Shuttlesworth and Bell which I observed on that day gave me pause. I had attended a meeting just that day sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund at which Marian Wright Edelman said that the state of black, brown and poor people in this country is as bad as it was immediately after the Civil War.

She is not the only person who has said the same. The fact that the progress made by black people especially seems to be moving backward and not forward is sobering and troubling. The old adage, “If you’re white, you’re right, if you’re yellow, you’re mellow, if you’re brown, stick around, but if you’re black, get back” seems to be a permanent part of America’s ethos.

Steve Jobs was an admirable man, a genius for sure, but Shuttlesworth and Bell were admirable and heroic, risking life and livelihood for the sake of dispossessed people.

Why doesn’t America care about that?

It is the 21st century. Why hasn’t America gotten rid of her peculiar virus called racism? To add fuel to that thought, my daughter told me of how a very upscale neighborhood near us had an incident of racial hatred just last week; someone spray-painted the “n” word on the car of an African American family that recently moved in.

“Mom,” she said, “Isn’t this the 21st century? Are we still going through this kind of stuff?

Apparently so. It is troubling, but the truth of the matter is, America is not well, not even close. In spite of the Civil War and the civil rights era, the virus called racism is still eating away at the core of this nation.

That is a candid observation.