Editor’s Note: This article has been updated.
ATLANTA — A pro-life event at the Martin Luther King Jr. historic site was disrupted by officials July 24.
Participants in the “Freedom Rides for the Unborn” rally — more than 100 pro-life supporters — were kept from rallying on the federal park surrounding the gravesite of the black civil-rights activist.
Meanwhile, “pro-choice” opponents who showed up were ushered onto the grounds for a counter rally.
Organized by Priests for Life and Martin Luther King’s pro-life niece Alveda King, who heads the organization’s African-American Outreach, the event brought about 30 pro-life black pastors and a busload of supporters, accompanied by King and Father Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, from Alabama to the King Center in Atlanta in emulation of the civil-rights Freedom Rides of the 1960s.
The Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, founded by the King family, is part of a National Historic Site under the National Park Service, so both King Center staff and Park Service personnel were present at the event.
Free Speech Obstructed
When King and Father Pavone arrived with the Freedom Riders, they were denied access to the King tomb by King Center staff.
When Park Service staff finally allowed King onto the federal property surrounding the center, she managed to get to the gravesite via a back way.
When she was stopped by the King Center’s CEO, John Mack, King was distressed enough by the obstruction that she climbed into a reflecting pool beside the grave and declared, “Okay, lock me up, but explain to my uncle why you locked me up; explain to my father why you locked me up … explain to Jesus why you locked me up.”
Before the Freedom Riders arrived at the site, local pro-lifers were already running into trouble from the Park Service, according to Bridget Kurt, an Atlanta pro-lifer and event participant.
“When we got there, a rally of ‘pro-choicers’ was already going on right on park property, chanting and using a bullhorn,” reports Kurt. “The park superintendent told us we couldn’t congregate on the sidewalk or go onto the grounds and that we couldn’t carry signs. She told us the pro-aborts had a permit but later changed that to say they had permission.”
Kurt was shocked at the Park Service’s treatment of pro-life supporters who arrived before King: “The Park Service and the King Center disrupted something that was to be very peaceful and prayerful. It all was totally contrary to the spirit of nonviolence that Martin Luther King stood for. I heard one park ranger joke about whether they should get their clubs out. It was a joke, but still, how nonviolent was that?”
Kurt published her version of events on the CNN iReport website under the headline “National Park Service violates free-speech rights of Alveda King and pro-lifers at MLK grave.”
For its part, the Park Service denies that remarks about clubs were made. Moreover, Judy Forte, the superintendent of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, told the Register, “We had a volatile situation with two groups demonstrating. Neither of them had a permit. I just tried to separate them for public safety.”
Forte reports that the Park Service had issued a permit for this group, 30 to 35 in number, to hold a reception at a historic home on the Park Service site.
But she also reports that the King Center, an independently operated nonprofit that controls the Martin Luther King Jr. gravesite, had denied Alveda King a permit for any kind of function at the gravesite itself.
King, however, says her cousin Martin Luther King III, the president of the center, gave her permission orally to stop at the gravesite for a prayer during her visit. But later, when the center’s CEO received requests from Altanta pro-abortion groups to hold protests on the site, he decided no one would be allowed at the grave and erected a temporary metal fence around it.
Pro-Lifers Assert Rights
Some pro-lifers began turning their signs over to park staff, says Kurt, but she told Forte, “We had every right to be on a city sidewalk. She told me to shut up and told a staff member to call 911. I said, ‘Fine, and I’ll call CNN.’”
Both followed through on their statements. However, neither CNN nor any local news agencies sent reporters. The Atlanta police did, however, eventually respond to Forte’s call, but they made no effort to remove the pro-lifers from the sidewalk.
“They told Forte,” says Kurt, “that we could use the sidewalks.”
Forte explains that she had moved the “pro-choice” rally to the historic site’s designated “First Amendment” location (which all U.S. parks provide for demonstrations) even though they had no permit because she wanted to keep them away from King’s group.
Bullying and Coercion?
When a much larger group of local pro-life supporters, armed with signs, began assembling, Forte told them they couldn’t assemble on Park Service property because they had no permit and likewise couldn’t rally on the sidewalk, “because the city of Atlanta requires a permit for that. But people saw the other [pro-abortion] rally going on and were not in the space to listen to any explanations.”
When the Freedom Riders arrived, Park Service officers took them to their reception and then walked them past the gravesite. King slipped between the barriers and said her prayer, then joined the pro-lifers still assembled on the sidewalk.
The group crossed the street and made speeches in front of a laundromat. King delivered a speech calling for justice for the unborn.
Then King returned with two supporters to her uncle’s gravesite and pushed past John Mack at the barricade. “Mr. Johnny Mack,” she says she told him, “lock me up because I am about to move your barricade and pray at the grave of my uncle.”
She did pray; then she stepped into the reflecting pool and challenged staff again to lock her up. At Mack’s direction, however, they did not.
“I didn’t do anything to stop her,” says Forte. “I didn’t think it was a protest. It was a family thing.”
King says she has no complaint against the center’s staff or the Park Service, who were courteous and respectful of her rights throughout, but only objected to Mack’s decision to keep her from the gravesite. Mack did not respond to the Register’s request for an interview.
Park Service media relations officer Marianne Mills told the Register this means that “the assertion that the ‘National Park Service violates free-speech rights of Alveda King and pro-lifers at MLK grave’ is incorrect.”
Not so, says Kurt. She insists Park Service officers bullied and coerced pro-lifers into giving up their signs and tried to disperse them from city sidewalks.
“Park Service staff escalated a tense situation rather than calming it down,” Kurt says. “And it was quite apparent to me the superintendent did not understand free speech and the boundary between what was public and private property and that free speech is allowed on public property.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.