Abstract In 1964, Claude and Jeanne Nolen, who were white, joined an interracial NAACP team intent on desegregating local restaurants in Austin, Texas as a test of the recently passed Civil Rights Act. Twenty-five years later, the Nolens pleaded "no contest" in a courtroom for their continued social activism. This time the issue was not racial segregation, but rather criminal trespassing for blockading abortion clinics with Operation Rescue. The Nolens served prison sentences for direct action protests that they believed stemmed from the same commitment to Christianity and social justice as the civil rights movement.
Despite its relationship to political and cultural conservatism, the anti-abortion movement since Roe v. Wade (1973) was also a product of the progressive social movements of the turbulent sixties. Utilizing oral history interviews and organizational literature, the article explores the historical context of the anti-abortion movement, specifically how the lengthy struggle for racial justice shaped the rhetoric, tactics, and ideology of anti-abortion activists. Even after political conservatives dominated the movement in the 1980s, the successes and failures of the sixties provided a cultural lens through which grassroots anti-abortion activists forged what was arguably the largest movement of civil disobedience in American history.
Keywords: African American, Civil Rights, Anti-abortion, Civil Disobedience, Race Relations
On the evening of July 3, 1964, Claude and Jeanne Nolen walked through the doors of the aptly named Dixie Grill, a restaurant in Austin, Texas, with a reputation for strict adherence to the South's racial segregation. The Nolens, who were white, entered the restaurant with Volma Overton, black president of the local chapter of the NAACE and another black activist. Armed with the belief in the "troubling" nature of racial segregation and the knowledge that President Lyndon Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the previous day, the "nervous" foursome ordered drinks amid what Jeanne later recalled as "ugly stares" and "threatening" questions from the white customers. As part of an interracial "NAACP team" testing Austin's compliance with controversial civil rights legislation, the Nolens, who were served that night, jumped at the opportunity to promote racial integration and provide what they later referred to as a "marked challenge" to the southern way of life. (1)
Twenty-five years later, in 1989, the Nolens, by then both in their late sixties, pleaded "no contest" in an Austin courtroom for their continued social activism. This time the incident did not revolve around issues of race, but instead involved abortion, a practice that Claude referred to as an "outrageous assault on liberty." Filled with an "obligation to do something" despite being rather shy and private people, the Nolens were arrested on six separate counts of criminal trespassing with the militant antiabortion group Operation Rescue. Refusing to even pay a fine used to compensate local police, Claude and Jeanne served eight-month sentences in prison for, in Claude's words, "resist[ing] the state" and blockading "baby-killing centers." (2)
The Nolens' impressive resume of social activism provides an instructive window through which to understand the development and growth of the anti-abortion movement and how some Americans approached abortion in the years after Roe v. Wade (1973). Although activists with a background in the civil rights movement were only a tiny fraction of Operation Rescue, a group dominated by politicized conservative Christians with a questionable commitment or understanding of nonviolent civil disobedience, their influence was substantial. The ability of anti-abortion activists to appropriate much of the tactics, rhetoric, and ideology of the civil rights movement contributed to the growth and direction of the movement in the years after Roe and speaks to the complicated and unpredictable legacy of the turbulent sixties.
It also reminds us of the complexity of social activism within American history. While the Nolens were undoubtedly devout Catholics, their religion as the sole source of their activism does little to explain their behavior in relation to most American Catholics who were not involved in civil disobedience or even strongly opposed to abortion rights. Specifically, the social activism of the Nolens and others emerged from the creative ways in which many Americans perceived abortion, religion, and social change through the lens of American race relations and the civil rights movement. Raised in the 1920s amid the South's unyielding commitment to Jim Crow, the Nolens later attributed their identity as southern white liberals to their relatively progressive families and, in the case of Claude, experience as a soldier in the Pacific during World War II when he was struck with the "obvious connections" between the racism of Germany and Japan and the South's racial inequality. After the war, Claude studied southern history at Louisiana State University and, as a historian, explored "Negro suppression" at the hands of racist whites in the nineteenth century. Years later, after he had accepted a position at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, it was not surprising that, in attempting to "teach the truth," he offered the school's first black history course in 1969. Four years later, he and his wife joined the anti-abortion movement with, in their minds, a similar commitment to promote human rights and social justice. (3)
Of course, the historiography of abortion in American society leaves little room for activists such as the Nolens. Historians have described the struggle for abortion rights as part of a broader effort to achieve civil rights. With this analytical framework, the "underpinnings" of the abortion debate since Roe reflect the continuing struggle over race, class, and gender that reached a zenith in the decade before Roe. Similarly, as part of a larger effort to explore the rise of American conservatism, historians, social scientists, and journalists have emphasized the importance of religion and cultural conservatism, including anti-feminism, in motivating anti-abortion activists. While such accounts are accurate in illustrating that much of the movement drew strength from its opposition to the perspectives and ideals that fueled the social activism of the sixties, they also inevitably emphasize conflict--complete with references to "trenches" and "battlefields"--between simple notions of a progressive sixties and the more conservative decades of the seventies and eighties. (4)
Fortunately, recent scholars have demonstrated similarities between conservatives during and after the sixties. Studies such as Rebecca Klatch's A Generation Divided: The New Left, The New Right, and the 1960s stress striking similarities between Students for a Democratic Society and the conservative Young Americans for Freedom as the turmoil of the period served shaped a generational identity that transcended politics. Similarly, the story of how the anti-abortion movement appropriated the rhetoric, ideology, and tactics of the civil rights movement reveals creativity as opponents of abortion forged a vibrant, effective, and controversial movement from the rich and complex legacy of American activism and the sixties. (5)
While the Nolens explained their activism in both 1964 and 1989 in terms of their personal commitment to human rights and social justice, the story of how the civil rights movement shaped the anti-abortion movement began in Selma, Alabama, with Chuck Fager, a young white civil rights worker for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In January 1965, six months after the Nolens entered the Dixie Grill, Fager arrived in Selma as, in his words, a "green white kid from the North," hoping to work for the SCLC. Fager stayed in Selma for over a year and later referred to his experience as "going to school" with lessons in nonviolent civil disobedience and the role of religion and race in American culture. By the time he left Selma, Fager had been arrested three times and spent an evening in jail with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reverend Ralph Abernathy. (6)
After leaving Selma, Fager avoided service in Vietnam by receiving Conscientious Objector status. He became a Quaker, moved to Boston, and continued to write, publishing books on the civil rights movement and articles in small …