Brothers in Arms, Part 3: White Supremacy and the War on Abortion

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.

KKK members picket Carter campaign office in Alabama, September 1, 1980. Photo: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, courtesy of Georgia State University

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. Continue reading

The Birmingham Clinic Bombing and the Culture of Violence Against Reproductive Freedom

After earning her nursing degree from the University of Alabama in 1977, Emily Lyons developed a suite of skills in a variety of health care settings, from in-home care to emergency services. She passed on much of her knowledge to future nurses when she taught at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, and by 1998, she had taken the helm as director of nursing at the New Woman All Women Health Care clinic in Birmingham, Alabama.


The 1990s were a time of numerous murders and attempted murders of reproductive health-care providers.


Lyons remembers little from January 29 of that year, a date 15 years ago today. She woke up earlier than she wanted but pushed herself through her morning routine, knowing she could look forward to a nap after work. She also looked forward to being home again with her husband, who was back from two weeks of business travel. But when she arrived at work, a devastating act of violence would ensure that nothing that ordinary would happen to her that day.

At 7:33 a.m., just as the clinic was opening, a bomb containing dynamite and nails exploded outside, killing security guard Robert Sanderson and critically injuring Emily Lyons. Although it was one of dozens of abortion clinic bombings that had occurred since abortion was legalized in 1973, the bombing of that Birmingham clinic was the first that resulted in a fatality. The five prior murders of reproductive health-care providers had been by gunshot.

Wounded in her face and legs, Lyons’ life was changed forever. After a long recovery, she was unable to resume her nursing career, but she became a spokesperson and activist for reproductive rights, receiving, among other honors, the Margaret Sanger Woman of Valor Award from Planned Parenthood. Continue reading