UPDATE, May 19, 1:00 p.m.: SisterReach has reported that as of Friday evening the three billboards have come down.
It was 2010 when anti-choice groups erected the first anti-woman, “pro-life” billboards in Atlanta, Georgia. The billboards stated that Black children were an “endangered species.” Iterations of that same message said that Black mothers’ wombs were unsafe, Black children were unwanted, Black women had been betrayed by “abortionists,” and that Black mothers were aborting future leaders like President Obama. When those messages didn’t work, the groups targeted Black mothers again through our men. Those billboards showed a Black man kissing his partner’s belly alongside a message that his fatherhood began in her womb—her unsafe womb.
Fast forward to today in predominantly Black and underserved neighborhoods of Memphis, Tennessee, where Prolife Across America has erected three anti-choice billboards. Prolife Across America’s anti-abortion rhetoric is packaged with pictures of beautiful baby girls with bows on their heads. The billboards represent another attempt by the anti-choice movement to guilt Black mothers about their personal reproductive health-care decisions while pitting Black fathers against us.
The placement of these billboards comes at a time when Black people everywhere are forced to remind the world that Black lives matter, especially the quality of those lives. Our communities are still laden with economic disinvestment, gentrification, joblessness, under-employment, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, sexual assault, domestic violence, and struggling schools. In the Deep South, our opportunity at healthier bodies has been compromised as many southern states refuse to accept federal dollars to expand Medicaid while failing to implement state-funded health plans. Medicaid expansion would ensure that thousands of people, despite their employment status, could access the health care they need—which covers all preventive services for women, including reproductive health care.
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Unfortunately, these anti-woman, anti-choice supporters are nowhere to be found when advocates are working to change the lived conditions of Black communities. They are not coordinating job fairs or fighting for low-income housing. They aren’t investing in community gardens or fighting to ensure proper grocery stores in food deserts. They did not stand with Trayvon Martin’s mother or Eric Garner’s wife. They didn’t fight to ensure Marissa Alexander’s freedom or the custody of her children. They were silent as Black lives were lost during and after Hurricane Katrina and remained silent while Black families searched for a new start. Instead, they erect inflammatory, shaming billboards.
The money invested in anti-abortion billboards alone could help poor Black families in Detroit pay their delinquent water bills or seed the movement to fight mass incarceration. Did I miss their parade championing Toya Graham’s action of desperation and parenthood as her child’s “unsafe place” proved to be the streets of Baltimore instead of her womb? Somehow, “pro-life” activists are only present to shame Black mothers, manipulate Black fathers, and exploit Black babies with campaigns that are egregious, racist, and divisive.
Their interposing actions in Black communities disguised as “help” only add to the harmful and traumatic experiences of Black women, men, and children. They are not invested in our long-term well-being. Their temporary concern for the little Black “princess” on the billboard will cease the moment she is of child-bearing age and eligible to become a “welfare queen.”
These heinous attacks on Black families are unfruitful and unwelcome, especially in the city where one of the Black leaders they care so much about, Martin Luther King Jr., was murdered in cold blood just under 50 years ago. There was no billboard erected in honor of his life. There has not been any justice for his death, as sanitation workers in Memphis still fight for fair wages and the lived conditions of Black lives still do not matter in America.
It is not coincidental that “pro-life” groups forgo consulting Black communities about what we need in terms of support or resources to change the daily conditions of our lives. That trend of disregarding us is directly connected to the constant dehumanization of Black people in this country—a trend that dates as far back as slavery. The recent poll, African-American Voices on Sexual Health, released in June 2013, demonstrates that Black Americans across multiple generations trust Black women, support access to comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education, and view contraception as fundamental health care.
Black Americans overwhelmingly support abortion—in fact, 80 percent of Black Americans believe abortion should remain legal regardless of their personal feelings. This vast majority holds true with those identifying as conservative (74 percent) and those identifying as religious (76 percent). SisterReach’s report called, Our Voices and Experiences Matter: The Need for Comprehensive Sex Education Among Young People of Color in the South, offers insight into one of the strategies to ensure Black families’ success—access to comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education.
Black mothers and our families deserve better than billboards exploiting the social determinants perpetuated by white male supremacy that has created the various hostile environments in which we live and parent. Environments that are unfit for ourselves, let alone the potential babies we may bear. Environments where the murder rate for Black Americans is four times the national average. That murder isn’t happening in abortion clinics. That murder isn’t happening at the hands or in the wombs of Black women. Black mothers aren’t crafting policies limiting our access to contraception, sex education, or health care. Black mothers aren’t championing gun access policies or limiting access to government safety net programs.
Our opportunity to realize reproductive justice as the Black family will continue to be thwarted if the insistence of these insidious anti-woman, anti-choice tactics targeting our communities are not stopped.
The agenda of Prolife Across America and other organizations like it is not in the best interest of Black women, men, and our families. These groups are seeking to make Memphis the next battleground in their so-called war against abortion, but using Black children as political pawns will not succeed. As reproductive justice activists working on behalf of women of color in Tennessee, we will not be silent about their racialized attacks—be they political, religious, or cultural. Their misguided tactics to divide the Black communities of Memphis through their disingenuous concern for the abortion rate of Black women is an effort ill spent.
If the anti-choice movement is actually concerned about Black lives, they will take the billboards down and instead re-route those resources into productive efforts to achieve the complete health and well-being of Black families in Memphis and throughout the country.
I won’t hold my breath though.