"The Civil Rights Movement of the 1990s?": The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Struggle for Racial Justice

Article excerpt

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. …