This article is our third installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series explored the first years after Roe v. Wade, when a fight to preserve school segregation brought together Christian conservatives, who then took on the issue of abortion. This installment examines the connections that developed later between racist groups and the anti-abortion movement in the 1980s, which fed a growing extremism that escalated in the following decade.
The U.S. entered the 1980s with a new political force at work, one that had proven its strength by playing a role in the landslide defeat of incumbent President Jimmy Carter and the election of Ronald Reagan. The religious right had been slow to coalesce in the 1970s, but when it finally did, it became a power that shaped national politics.
What had taken time was trying out — and then abandoning — issues like school prayer and pornography, hoping to find the political lightning bolt that would unite and energize the religious right. When they finally did find their compelling issue, the religious right had a problem: It wasn’t one they could use publicly.
During the Reagan years, there was ample crossover between white supremacist and anti-abortion groups.
Beginning in the 1960s, the South was dotted with private Christian schools that provided white Southerners, many of whom were wary of racial integration, with an alternative to the public schools that were undergoing desegregation. But by the 1970s, those private schools were under attack, coming under the scrutiny of both the IRS and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for their admissions and hiring policies.
The issue brought together key figures in the religious right, like Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones, and Paul Weyrich, and they made it their mission to defeat Carter’s reelection bid, hoping the next president would put the IRS and EEOC on a shorter leash. But to build their movement publicly and nationally, they needed an issue that would stir a broader base of sympathy, branding them as believers instead of bigots. They picked abortion — namely, demanding a constitutional amendment to outlaw it — and they enjoyed a resounding success. Carter refused their demands and lost. Reagan, the candidate they endorsed — and whose party supported their demand in its official platform — won by one of the largest margins in history.
Reagan also had the distinction — albeit one he publicly rebuffed — of being endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in both 1980 and 1984, in large part because of his opposition to affirmative action. The Klan, of course, shared some of the same views as those Southern segregationists who had helped put Reagan in office, but they took those views to more extreme conclusions. Their views on abortion, it turned out, followed much the same pattern.
A New Blood Libel
The union of racist ideology and anti-abortion politics that helped bring Reagan to power had a more underground counterpart that developed in the 1980s, one that existed largely outside the arena of electoral politics. The rhetoric of hate groups began to echo fears from a century prior — fears that had fueled the prohibition of abortion throughout the U.S., before its eventual legalization in Roe v. Wade. In the late 19th century, waves of immigration generated concerns about a vanishing white race. The birth rate of Anglo-Saxon women, the idea went, could not afford its losses to legal abortion when immigrants were arriving and multiplying at such an alarming rate. In a similar vein, in the 1980s, the KKK and other white supremacist groups began making the charge that abortion was the tool of a Jewish conspiracy to eradicate the white race.
Many of the conspiracy theorists focused their hatred on a New York abortion provider in 1985, when the White Patriot Party, formerly known as the Confederate Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, issued a death threat against Dr. Bernard Nathanson. The threat took the form of a “Wanted” poster in The Confederate Leader newspaper and referred to Nathanson as a “Jew abortion king,” declaring that he had been “tried, convicted, and sentenced to death … by a fair and unbiased judge and jury of the White Patriots.” The fictional conviction was for “55,000 counts of first-degree murder, treason against the United States of America, and conspiracy to commit genocide against the White Race.”
Tom Metzger of the White Aryan Resistance (WAR) added homophobic slurs to his own contribution to the Jewish conspiracy theory: “Abortion makes money for Jews. Almost all abortion nurses are lesbians. Abortion gives thrills to lesbians.” He went on to call Planned Parenthood “a corrupt Jewish organization” and added that “Jews must be punished for this holocaust and murder of white children along with their perverted lesbian nurses.” In 1989, WAR published a cartoon that repeated many of the same themes:
Did you know that most abortionists are Jewish or other non-whites … and that the pro-abortion movement is headed by unfeminine feminist Jewesses who counsel non-whites to not get abortions … and did you know that abortionists slaughter nearly one million white babies every year? Jewish ritual murder is alive and well in the United States of America … and is very legal!
Eventually, the anti-Semitic brand of anti-abortion politics that was peddled by WAR and the KKK took root outside the ranks of self-identified white supremacists. On a 1989 broadcast of WVIT’s “Connecticut News-makers” program, Robert Cooley of the Pro-Life Action Network commented that “affluence and comfort lead to abortion” and that “the majority of abortionists are Jewish.” Both Randall Terry of Operation Rescue and members of the Texas-based Life Dynamics, Inc., have made similar claims about the disproportionate role Jewish doctors have played in abortion provision.
Loretta J. Ross, a visiting associate professor of women’s studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, has done extensive research on the connections between white supremacist and anti-abortion movements. Ross posits that both ideologies are enabled by a Christian fundamentalist doctrine that puts Biblical law above civil law and justifies violence as a means to carry out God’s will. The doctrine provides a theological home for the extreme beliefs that are the bedrock of both white supremacist and anti-abortion ideology, holding that whites are God’s chosen people and that their unborn must be protected from abortion.
In an interview for a feminist oral history project at Smith College, Ross recounted how she became interested in the merged world of racist and anti-abortion violence in the early 1990s. She and her colleagues began compiling “the names of people who were in the white supremacist movement” and “analyzed their strategies and tactics, their kidnappings, their murders, their fire bombings.” She began to notice similarities in the tactics used by the anti-abortion movement and suspected “that they were learning them from the white supremacist movement.”
“And then we had some people that were clearly crossover people,” she continued, “like John Burt in Florida, who was very much involved in the anti-abortion movement down there, admittedly had been in the Ku Klux Klan — so, therefore, clear indication that there had been some crossover.” With arrest records and other data, Ross and her colleagues began comparing the names of known white supremacists to known anti-abortion extremists — and began “seeing [people] who showed up on both lists.”
Ross and her colleagues began their project, which they named Women’s Watch, six months before the first assassination of an abortion provider. John Burt, the first of the “crossover people” she discovered, was responsible for indoctrinating the perpetrator of that assassination, and he continued to be at the center of many news reports about anti-abortion violence in the 1990s.
Burt had been “very active” in the KKK in the 1960s when he was in St. Augustine, the Florida city where the Klan had been especially violent toward civil rights activists from the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). One prominent member of the SCLC called his time in St. Augustine, in the spring of 1964, the most “brutal and violent” he experienced, adding that it was “the only place where the hospital bills were bigger than the hotel bills and the food bills for the [civil rights] movement.”
Though Burt claimed to have left the Klan by the time he became interested in the anti-abortion movement, he told the New York Times in 1994, “Fundamentalist Christians and [the KKK] are pretty close, fighting for God and country. Someday we may all be in the trenches together in the fight against the slaughter of unborn children.”
Burt also retained much of his taste for the Klan’s iconography. A reporter who was working for BBC in the mid-1990s visited Burt’s home in Milton, Florida, and recounted seeing a Confederate flag and an image of a Confederate soldier, the latter bearing the caption, “The South will rise again.”
Some of the earliest mentions of John Burt go back to 1985, when he came out in support of a small group of anti-abortion extremists — Matthew Goldsby, Kaye Wiggins, and James and Kathy Simmons — as they stood trial for a series of clinic bombings in Florida. Burt was 43 years old at the time and recounted how he abandoned a history of alcoholism, drug abuse, and check fraud to become an activist for the religious right: “One day I was sitting up late at night doing speed and looking through an old Bible.” That’s when he decided to go to church and get clean. His newfound religion soon led him to found a home for unwed mothers called Our Father’s House. It also led him to form an anti-abortion group, Rescue America, and picket outside the Ladies Center in Pensacola, one of the clinics that Goldsby, Wiggins, and the Simmonses bombed on Christmas Eve of 1984. In 1986, Burt faced criminal convictions of his own after breaking into another area abortion clinic and damaging furniture and medical equipment.
The General and His Soldiers
It was at Our Father’s House that Burt later met Michael Frederick Griffin, who arrived as a volunteer and soon became both an acolyte and Burt’s hired handyman. Burt groomed him to be an activist in the anti-abortion movement, taking him to demonstrations and showing him graphic propaganda videos.
Griffin didn’t have the kind of sordid backstory, like Burt’s, that would explain the wild-eyed redemption he found in the movement, but it provided a space for his radical religious views — and, later, his temper and violent streak. He spent time at the Brownsville Assembly of God in Pensacola before its reverend decided his “radical behavior” didn’t belong there. In 1991 he was fired from his job at a local skating rink after he assaulted a customer. According to his manager, “He back-armed a kid, and knocked him down.” The same year, his wife filed for divorce, claiming she had been verbally, emotionally, and physically abused by him.
The following year, 1992, saw a new kind of crossover from white supremacist groups to the anti-abortion movement. Much like the White Patriot Party’s 1985 “Wanted” poster targeting Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Randall Terry issued a poster targeting a Pensacola abortion provider, Dr. David Gunn. It not only bore his photo but also provided his home address and telephone number. The poster charged him with “murder and crimes against humanity,” with “defenseless unborn babies” as his victims. Following Terry’s lead, John Burt began distributing more posters of Gunn, featuring his photo and other identifying information.
The process of further radicalizing Michael Frederick Griffin and then painting Dr. Gunn as a wanted criminal ended in tragedy on March 11, 1993 — 25 years ago this week — when Griffin approached Dr. Gunn outside his clinic and shot him in the back three times, reportedly yelling, “Don’t kill any more babies!”
Burt would later deny responsibility for the violence he had provoked, arguing, “If I am a general with troops under me and give them a game plan and send them out, I can’t be responsible for every soldier in that army.” Speaking in military metaphors to distance himself from violence was much like the way he spoke of leaving the KKK — by also commenting on how they could someday find themselves “fighting for God and country” together. A photo that appeared in a 1993 issue of Time pushed the military theme even further, showing him dressed in combat fatigues.
Burt was designated a court witness in the murder trial of Michael Frederick Griffin, and Griffin’s lawyer argued that Burt was responsible for brainwashing Griffin and pushing him to a “nervous breakdown” that led to his lethal outburst. In spite of the defense, Griffin was convicted of first-degree murder in 1994.
Though Burt would walk free after Dr. Gunn’s murder, he was arrested years later, in 2003, on five counts of criminal conduct for molesting a 15-year-old girl at Our Father’s House. After his arrest, other residents came forward with similar stories of sexual abuse.
Before Griffin’s conviction, he and Burt were early figures in a tide of anti-abortion violence that continued through the 1990s. Arson, bombing, and the murder of clinic staff and volunteers saw a dramatic rise during the decade, instilling a level of fear and uncertainty that has had a lasting impact on reproductive health services. That period of violence would reveal further connections between racial hatred and anti-abortion activism, as a growing, militant movement saw racial diversity, civil rights, feminism, and reproductive health services as signs of a tyrannical shift in the federal government.
In the next and final installment of this series, we’ll explore the “Patriot” and militia movements that emerged in the mid-1990s and their ties to white supremacist and anti-abortion violence — as well as the synergies that developed between the right-wing fringe and the conservative establishment that influence politics today.