By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published August 5, 2010
A bus full of pro-life advocates, including Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life and Dr. Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., prayed for an end to abortion near the historic King landmarks on Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue on July 24.
However, the peaceful demonstration did not occur exactly as anticipated, when National Parks Service officials escorted the group out of a portion of the site, saying they did not have a needed permit. Meanwhile, a vocal group opposing the pro-life prayer service shouted at them throughout it.
The group of pro-life advocates had traveled from Birmingham, Ala., where the “freedom ride,” sponsored by Priests for Life, began with a rally the night before.
More than 100 additional people, waiting patiently in the scorching sun, joined the group in Atlanta as the bus unloaded. Together they marched past the gravesite of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, and crossed the street to a shaded area near the King Center.
According to Father Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, the pro-life journey was planned to build on the spirit of the 1961 Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights Movement.
In its 1960 decision Boynton v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in bus terminals and restaurants serving interstate travelers. The following year, more than a dozen people, both black and white, attempted to travel by bus from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans to test the enforcement of that momentous decision. They suffered violence at many of their stops as they tried to live out the integration ruling.
According to the Priests for Life website, the pro-life movement shares the civil rights vision of equal justice for everyone based on the inherent dignity of every human life. The group asserts that both movements are movements of freedom.
“My uncle Martin had a dream that Protestants and Catholics and Gentiles and Jews would join together and sing the age-old spiritual ‘Free at Last,’” states Alveda King on the website. King is director of African-American outreach for Priests for Life.
“At Priests for Life, we will be singing and praying on the Pro-life Freedom Rides. We urge all people of good will to join us as we link the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century to the heart cry for life in the 21st century,” she wrote.
As the silent group marched slowly to the King Center’s grounds, a vocal group of pro-choice advocates held their own rally, chanting at the pro-lifers, “Shame on you,” “Trust black women,” and “You are not King’s legacy.”
As the pro-life group gathered in front of the new Ebenezer Baptist Church, they began to sing “We Shall Overcome.”
Then, in a moment of confusion for almost everyone involved, the National Parks Service escorted the group off the King Center site, telling them they were not able to hold their service on the grounds. Meanwhile the pro-choice group was left alone and continued their chants.
Now huddled on a public sidewalk across the street from the King Center, the pro-life service continued, alternating readings from Dr. King with Scripture passages.
A civil rights litany for justice and life, written by Father Pavone, included eight petitions that were read aloud by various people.
“Lord God, Author of Peace, you created all human beings that they might live as one, and you entrusted the life of each to the care of all,” prayed one member. “We pray for peace in our times, a peace which is not simply the absence of bombs and tanks, but rather the full protection of everyone’s rights, and the harmonious relationships of human beings with each other and with you. Help us to see that the greatest destroyer of peace and love is abortion, and that peace on earth must begin with peace in the womb.”
Asked why the group was escorted off the King Center grounds, some Parks Service officers said the group did not have a permit to gather there, while others said it was to keep the two groups from getting too close to one another and to avoid a confrontation.
According to the National Parks Service, the permit that was issued to Alveda King did not allow the group to gather on the property near the church.
Judy Forte, superintendent of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, said, “The only permit that was issued to my knowledge that day was the permit I had given to Alveda King” for a group of 30 adults to gather for a reception in one of the National Parks Service buildings before a tour of the King Center. “There were no other permits … that were issued.”
She said there are three jurisdictions within the historic site: the King Center, the National Parks Service and the city of Atlanta.
“There was no permit to my knowledge that was issued by the King Center, nor the city of Atlanta, nor the Parks Service for anyone to assemble for a rally, demonstration or any other form of meeting at the King Center or within the streets of the King Center or here within the national park site,” said Forte.
Forte said she had granted permission for the pro-choice group to stay in a designated area as long as they did not directly interfere with the pro-life group. However, when the two groups began to hold their respective rallies, they seemed to get closer and closer to each other until the NPS decided the safest move was to lead the pro-lifers off the property, she said.
Forte said that both groups were frustrated and confused at how the events unfolded, but she said the event “was not what we expected.”
“We didn’t have the staff there to handle anything that would have gotten out of control,” she said. “I couldn’t do any more. It was the best we could do with the limited resources we had.”
Father Pavone said the group made some clerical errors in trying to obtain the appropriate permit, but the slight disruption during the prayer service did not dampen the celebratory spirit of the freedom ride or of the participating pro-lifers.
“Our people were there in a celebration of the principles of the civil rights and pro-life movements,” said Father Pavone.
Priests for Life plans another pro-life freedom ride from Knoxville to Chattanooga, Tenn., in October. The focus of this ride will be on post-abortion healing, said Father Pavone.
The freedom ride is a new initiative of Priests for Life and is just one way to become involved in the movement. According to Father Pavone, prayer is one of the key facets of this ministry.
“Prayer is at the heart of this movement … just as prayer has been at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement,” said Father Pavone in a video on the website. “We want to call on people to pray very deliberately, very specifically” for the end of abortion.
For more information visit www.priestsforlife.org.