(WOMENSENEWS)--When the Rev. Clenard Childress addresses his congregation he speaks of Jesus, of loving thy neighbor and about black genocide.
"Abortion," he says, "is the greatest injustice to black women in this country since slavery."
From the pulpit of his New Jersey baptist church Childress preaches about many of the same subjects he addresses in his biweekly radio program, "The Urban Prophet," and posts on his Web site, blackgenocide.org.
His message is simple: that abortion is being used as a tool of genocide against blacks who are, as he puts it, "becoming extinct."
Childress is the most sought-after speaker in Life Education and Resource Network (LEARN), the nation's largest African American anti-abortion organization. Formed in 1993 by a fellow minister, Johnny Hunter, LEARN serves as an umbrella group for several dozen anti-abortion religious groups. Childress joined in 1997, heads its Northeast Chapter, and is national social outreach coordinator.
LEARN's best-known march was 1999's Say-So March, as in "If you love the children, say so!" Childress led roughly 1,500 people--a number that organizers specifically aimed for to represent the 1,452 abortions black women have every day--on a 10-day trek from New Jersey to Washington, D.C.
His church-based anti-choice demonstrations haven't received much media attention and Childress feels that is part of the conspiracy. "They don't want you to know what they are doing. They don't want you to know that we are being killed off."
The abortion topic is as controversial in the black community as in any other segment of the population.
Last week, Congressman Bob Beauprez, who is running for governor in Colorado, issued a public apology for offending African Americans about remarks he made in a public radio interview. Beauprez said he found high abortion rates among blacks--which he calculated at 70 percent--to be "appalling." Beauprez' campaign could not later verify the statistic. According to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute, of 1,000 black women of reproductive age, 49 have had abortions, about three times the rate for white women.
In the last election, George W. Bush received 11 percent of the black vote, an increase of 2 percent from the 2000 race, and more than any Republican presidential candidate in history. With a platform based on "values" Bush appealed to evangelicals, who claim a disproportionately black following.
But while the Republican-led push against abortion may have made inroads among black groups, it is still outside the political mainstream.
Representatives from both the NAACP and the New York-based National Urban League, have distanced themselves from certain racial arguments made by the anti-abortion movement.
The pro-choice movement, meanwhile, includes many black leaders such as Edgar Keemer, a Detroit physician who was jailed for providing abortions to women before 1973 and Dorothy Brown of Tennessee, who was one of the first state legislators to introduce a bill to legalize abortion in 1967.
Dorothy Robert, author of "Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty," a 1997 book about the reproductive rights of black women, says the movement that Childress is leading discredits their struggle. "I don't support policies that limit our childbearing but I also don't support policies that limit our right to abortion."
Civil Rights Argument
Childress and his followers see themselves as part a new movement for civil rights and argue that abortion is worse than the Jim Crow era lynchings in the pre-1960s American South and the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments, where for 40 years, the U.S. government performed experiments on black men with syphillis without informing them.
LEARN equates the treatment of fetuses as non-humans with views of slaves in earlier eras. "In the late 1800s, whites said, 'It is your choice to own a slave,'" says Childress. "It is that word--choice--that is the bane of our movement now."
Hunter says they do this for those that cannot do so for themselves: "We fought for so many rights. The right to vote, the right to an education, but all those things mean nothing to a dead black child."
Last fall, when former Education Secretary William Bennet commented that "you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down," Childress' Web site, which usually receives 10,000 hits a week, attracted 800,000, according to the site's administrator.
Childress' race-conscious sentiments don't seem to preclude funding from white anti-abortion activists.
For example, the fliers Childress distributes claim that "lynching is for amateurs" are printed by Life Dynamics, a radical and mainly white anti-abortion group based in Denton, Texas.
Both Childress and Hunter say their organization doesn't receive any federally funded "faith and community-based initiatives" money, and that LEARN subsists on private donations alone. They decline to provide more information about their major donors.
Blacks have been at the forefront of anti-abortion activism for years.
Alveda King, the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is a prominent, outspoken opponent of choice. As a young woman, she herself had two abortions and she speaks openly on the topic around the country.
Barbara Bell, an elementary school teacher and activist with Massachusetts Blacks for Life has been active since 1982 and has been arrested 45 times for protesting in front of clinics.
"I don't believe," she says, "that it was ever our way to slaughter our children."
But it wasn't until the late 1990s, when groups such as Life Dynamics began recruiting black clergy that strong organized opposition to abortion began to appear in the black community.
Group members began surfacing at meetings and members of anti-choice groups began connecting them to one another. In 1997, Childress attended an Essex County Right to Life meeting. He walked into the room and was the only African American there. "They were so excited to see me," he says, "and then they paid for my flight to fly down to Virginia to meet Johnny Hunter." Hunter and Childress have been working together ever since.
"Ten years ago," says Mark Crutcher, president of Life Dynamics, "you would not see people like Clenard on the frontlines."
Hunter, the founder of LEARN, has expanded his work to South Africa, where he travels four times a year. He preaches abstinence before marriage and the rhythm method afterwards. "I tell them that condoms and birth control were created by the white man to keep them down."
Hunter knows his stance against contraception has detractors within the black anti-abortion community and says he is comfortable with a diversity of views.
"I don't think it should be unified because if we all agreed, then you could knock one person and the whole thing would fall apart," Hunter says. "Who knows which strategy will get the job done? I personally think it'll take a combination."
Erika Beras is writing a book about women in hip-hop.
For more information:
Planned Parenthood Federation of America:
Priests for Life:
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