In 2010 I had the honor of participating in the founding of the Trust Black Women Partnership, when I was invited to a meeting of women of color in Atlanta Georgia. Reproductive justice activists had recently defeated race-baiting anti-choice legislation that came on the heels of a billboard campaign that advertised “black children are an endangered species” and “the most dangerous place for an African-American baby is in the womb.” The Trust Black Women Partnership is a long-term strategy to ensure that black women can mobilize wherever such campaigns appear in African American communities, and to generate deeper discussions about black women's autonomy and human rights. Instinct fueled me to action, since I knew my home state of Missouri was likely to see a similar campaign in the future. So, I returned home and immediately reached out to the reproductive justice community to share what we learned from the Georgia campaign and to organize women of color in St. Louis city and Missouri.
On March 21 Missouri Right to Life posted a copy of a new billboard campaign on Facebook. The billboard copy read “The Most Dangerous Place for an African-American Baby is in the Womb” and the description asked for donations to help Missouri Right to Life spread that message widely throughout Missouri. I sat in front of my computer and stared at it a long time, disgusted that not only was Missouri Right to Life planning to put this disgusting advertisement up but that the organization was fundraising by indicting the humanity of black women. Our Missouri reproductive justice committee came together, armed with the lessons learned from members of the Trust Black Women Partnership in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago and New York. We organized and waited to see where Missouri Right to Life would launch their race-baiting fundraising campaign. Two weeks ago, I received a text that the billboard was up in North St. Louis city.
I know the North St. Louis city neighborhood where the billboard has been placed well. I’ve volunteered at a shelter for homeless teenage mothers, located just blocks from the intersection where the billboard was placed, for years. I have friends and colleagues who live in the ward and I seriously considered reaching out to one of them to see if they could take a picture. But I decided to drive over myself, parked on a street just past the billboard and got out of my car. I stood there, shielding my eyes from the sun’s glare, for what must have been an hour. It’s hard to put into words what I was thinking. I’ve faced a lot of insults in my life, walked through crowds of protestors shouting that I am a race traitor, an Uncle Tom, and chanting that I am participating in genocide against black people. Now a billboard making those charges against black women has been placed in my city, in a neighborhood less than 20 minutes from my home. Yeah, it’s hard to put into words just how disgusted and insulted I am.
Our local committee came together and developed our strategy. Members reached out to Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin, who represents Ward 5 where the billboard was placed. A letter condemning the billboard campaign and demanding that the ad be removed has been sent to the owner of the billboard. I’m proud to say that every member of the African-American caucus of the St. Louis Board of Alderman signed the letter, including the president of the board Lewis Reed. We are still waiting for a response from owner of the billboard. While we wait, women of color continue to organize and St. Louisans have reached out to share their disgust and offer their support. Several people who identify as anti-choice have also expressed their dislike of this campaign and their concern over how it plays on long standing prejudices toward black women.
It is important to note that there are anti-choice billboards up all over St. Louis city and Missouri. Some advertise the 40 Days campaign against abortion that takes place during Lent while others simply denounce abortion and are up throughout the year. Our committee has taken no action against these other campaigns, although we disagree with the anti-choice message they advertise. But there is a huge difference between advertising against abortion rights and a race-baiting fundraising campaign that advertises that black women are genocidal and violent.
It is also important to note that Missouri Right to Life’s concern for communities of color ends at birth. Missouri Right to Life endorsed candidates have legislated against the best interests of Missourians in general and communities of color specifically for years. Former Missouri state Rep. Cynthia Davis, who opposed funding for a program that provides food for thousands of low-income children during the summer by claiming that “Hunger can be a positive motivator”, was a Missouri Right to Life endorsed legislator. When Davis chaired the Missouri House Standing Committee on Children and Families, she refused to hear a child safety bill because abortion legislation was a higher priority. Missouri Right to Life issued no statement reprimanding Davis nor did the organization speak out in support of the program funding food for low-income children through the summer.
Missouri Right to Life endorsed State Senator Brian Nieves, who used his filibuster of an extension of unemployment benefits to accuse out-of-work Missourians seeking benefits of enslaving working people. Nieves eventually ended his filibuster after weeks of delay. Missouri Right to Life issued no statement of support for the thousands of unemployed Missourians who would have been unable to feed their families had his stunt succeeded.
This year legislators endorsed by Missouri Right to Life overturned the voter supported automatic minimum wage escalator. Missouri Right to Life issued no statement to explain how overturning the decision by Missouri voters to increase the minimum wage in the state and thus improve the standard of living for thousands of Missourians would benefit children or families or working people.
Missouri Right to Life opposes legislation that would ensure rape survivors be provided with information about emergency contraception in emergency rooms, legislation that would return comprehensive sex education to Missouri schools, and legislation that would support programs to provide treatment for and prevention of sexually transmitted infections. Missouri Right to Life opposes the federal health care reform law, which would extend health care coverage to thousands of Missourians including many women of color who are currently uninsured. The organization has instead advocated for the erosion of access to reproductive health care in Missouri.
Oh, and they also launched a fundraising effort through a billboard campaign in a predominately black neighborhood that charges women of color with being dangerous violent genocidal threats to black children.
Reproductive justice did not happen to women of color. We have been part of the movement to protect our right to decide whether to have children and how to raise the children we have from the beginning. Women of color are capable of making decisions about our reproductive health care and, more to the point, are not required to register our qualifications with Missouri Right to Life or any other organization. This racist billboard campaign resonates with some because they already lack respect for women of color, they buy into the theme that women of color are lesser than and threatening, and they find comfort in the belief that they are going to rescue us from ourselves by educating us about ourselves.
This racist tactic of condemnation followed by oppression is not new. Throughout this nation’s history, our call for reproductive justice has been a call for those who claim to want the best for us to trust us to know what is best for us. Sadly, trusting black women continues to be a challenge for Missouri Right to Life and anti-choice organizations. Trust that we will not set aside our rights while they work through their fear of empowered women of color.