Brothers in Arms, Part 2: Race and Abortion from Roe to the Reagan Years

This article is our second installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series examined how fears of immigration — and racist notions that associated abortion with the barbarism of so-called “savage” races — fueled the opposition to abortion that led to its prohibition in the late 1800s. This installment examines the social forces that helped racism and opposition to abortion converge again in the first years after Roe v. Wade.

Replica of a banner used at NAACP headquarters from 1920 to 1938

A principle of democracy holds that while majority rule should serve as the guiding force of government, at times it must be reconciled with the rights of individuals and minorities. It was an idea Thomas Jefferson captured in his inaugural speech of 1801:

All … will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail … that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect.

With that understanding, the framers wrote the Constitution to include provisions for a judicial branch, composed of judges whose lifetime appointments would free them from the pressures of elections and afford them greater independence in their decisions. The branch would serve as the nation’s highest judicial body, above state and local courts.


Before his obsession with abortion and Tinky Winky, Jerry Falwell fought civil rights and integration.


For much of U.S. history, local, state, and federal judicial systems existed alongside another judicial system, one far less formal and conceived not in the interest of protecting minorities, but often in meting out the harshest possible punishments for them. It was the vigilante justice of lynching, sometimes known as Lynch law. Named after the Virginia plantation owner Charles Lynch, it was a form of mob justice that took root in the Revolutionary War era, before an official court system was fully established. It came to mean quick trials that ended in public hangings.

Though lynching was initially used against British loyalists, eventually Southern blacks became the overwhelming majority of its victims. Many Native Americans, Asians, Jews, and Mexicans were also lynched. According to the NAACP, between 1882 and 1968, in the period of racial tension in the post-slavery and civil rights years, 4,743 lynchings took place, and 3,446 of its victims were black. Rather than taking place under the cover of night or in countryside seclusion, many lynchings were staged in broad daylight, even in front of courthouses, and they were often advertised beforehand in newspapers — a blunt assertion of their existence as a separate judicial system for people of color. Though associated with the South, they took place in the North as well. In fact, only a few states — Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island — had no lynchings between 1882 and 1968. Continue reading

The Racial and Reproductive Justice of Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall, 1967. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration

On January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as America’s 45th president, almost half a million people descended on Washington, D.C., in what the Washington Post called “likely the largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history.” The Women’s March was held to protest the election of a highly unpopular president, who had been exposed in the months leading up to the election as someone who insulted the appearance and intelligence of women, boasted of his aggressive sexual advances toward others, and vowed to nominate a Supreme Court judge who would roll back women’s access to abortion. In D.C., and at solidarity marches around the nation and the world, people arrived for a massive show of support for women’s rights and reproductive justice.


Thurgood Marshall was a “great champion of intersecting struggles against racism and sexism.”


Actor Chadwick Boseman, who was on the set of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, a movie based on the first black superhero featured in mainstream comics, took a break from filming that morning to tweet, “Shooting Black Panther on a Saturday. But my heart is at the Women’s March.” It was a fitting sentiment for an actor who had also been cast to star in Marshall, the recently released biopic about the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

While Marshall was known foremost for his role in important civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education, as well as for becoming the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice some 50 years ago this month, he was also an influential figure in the history of reproductive justice. While the biopic focuses on his early career, when he handled a 1941 case involving a black defendant facing racially charged allegations and a prejudiced criminal justice system, it was not until more than three decades after that case — and more than five years after his swearing in to the Supreme Court — that Marshall became a fixture in the history of abortion rights in the U.S. Continue reading

Looking Back at Loving v. Virginia: The 50th Anniversary of a Landmark Case

Richard and Mildred Loving

Bettmann/Corbis via New York Times

When Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving started dating in the early 1950s, the idea that their relationship could change history could not have seemed more remote. When they decided to marry, Richard knew plenty of other people in Central Point, Virginia, had skirted the same legal barriers that stood in their way. Those Central Pointers had always been able to resume their lives afterward with no controversy or consequence. He and Mildred expected the same for themselves.


Loving v. Virginia upset one of the last strongholds of segregation.


Instead, Mildred and Richard would become the subject of numerous books and articles, a made-for-TV movie, a documentary, and a feature film, as well as the plaintiffs in a landmark Supreme Court case that turns 50 today. Their reluctance and modesty, even as their legal battle took on national significance, were captured in what Richard told LIFE Magazine in 1966: “[We] are not doing it just because somebody had to do it and we wanted to be the ones. We are doing it for us.”

An Illegal Marriage

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter met in 1950, seven miles from Central Point, at a farmhouse where the seven-member Jeter Brothers were staging a bluegrass show. Richard loved listening to bluegrass. That night, however, it was not the performers, but their younger sister, Mildred, who captured his attention. Mildred was a few years his junior and known for being shy and soft-spoken. She thought Richard seemed arrogant at first, but her impression changed as she got to know the kindness he possessed. The two dated for several years, often spending time together at the racetrack, where Richard and two close friends won numerous trophies with a race car they maintained together.

What would have otherwise been a familiar story of romance in rural, 1950s America was complicated by race, at a time when segregation was deeply entrenched. Richard Loving was white, of Irish and English descent, and Mildred Jeter was black, as well as part Cherokee and Rappahannock. For Richard and Mildred, though, Central Point provided an unusually safe space, one that stalled the expectation that their relationship could invite legal troubles. Continue reading

“You Have No Idea How Important This Is”: Anita Hill’s Testimony and the Arizona Attorneys Behind the Scenes

Anita HillWhen Justice Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court in the summer of 1991, it didn’t bode well for women. Marshall, the first African American appointed to the court, was best known for his expertise and influence on civil rights law, but he had also been a defender of reproductive rights during his tenure in the nation’s highest court. He was among the court majority that legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade, and he again stood up for abortion rights in two later cases, Harris v. McRae and Webster v. Reproductive Health Services.


The impact of Anita Hill’s testimony went beyond the question of Clarence Thomas’ appointment.


Marshall’s decision to leave the Supreme Court was announced during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, who had campaigned on an anti-abortion platform in his 1988 presidential bid. Predictably, Bush used the opportunity to replace Marshall with a more conservative judge. At a press conference on July 1, 1991, President Bush named Clarence Thomas, who was then one of the few African-American judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals, as his nominee.

Thomas had only served 19 months as a federal judge and, at 43, was relatively young for an appointee. Of the justices currently serving, he was the youngest at the time of appointment. Nonetheless, he had a record of statements and judgments that was enough to satisfy the Republican base. Though he had spent eight years as chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), he had been critical of affirmative action and school desegregation initiatives, and he questioned the very idea that the government should take action to address racial inequality. A product of a Catholic upbringing and Catholic schooling, Thomas had called the right of married couples to use contraceptives an “invention.” Groups like the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) immediately spoke out against Thomas’ nomination, expressing concern that his presence on the court could put Roe v. Wade at risk. Continue reading