Southern abortion rights advocates arrive in Chicago for ‘Black August Freedom Rides’
Activists from Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi traveled to Chicago to strengthen ties with local organizations as abortion bans go into effect in the South.
More than 100 years after Black residents fled racial and social injustices in the South during the Great Migration, some individuals may have to make similar journeys to Chicago and other cities to seek access to legal abortions since the fall of Roe v. Wade.
“It’s a hard reality that we are still here in 2022,” said Lakeesha Harris, the co-executive director of Lift Louisiana. “People say when Roe (v. Wade) fell, we went back 50 years. Actually, when Roe fell — for Black people — we are rolling back over 100 years.”
She noted that the fight for access to abortions is tied to the fight for civil rights of Black and LGBTQ individuals. She and about 30 other activists from Louisiana, Tennessee and Mississippi — states that already or will soon ban almost all abortions — traveled via train 13 to 23 hours to Chicago this week as part of “Black August Freedom Rides” to show how far some people may need to travel to get safe, legal abortions.
On Wednesday, about a dozen people arrived at Union Station, some wearing T-shirts demonstrating their support for abortion rights. They plan to stay through Thursday to strengthen relationships with Chicago reproductive rights groups, and to create a petition to present to the United Nations related to abortion access.
The group wants to create a vision for a new type of Roe v. Wade that centers on the needs of an individual who is pregnant, not just abortion providers.
Harris, who previously lived and worked in Chicago, said having a direct relationship with organizations in Chicago such as the South Side Birthing Center will become critical.
“The idea was so that activists can meet with one another so that when we are sending people up, our community members up, that they know who is on the other side that we’re sending them to,” Harris said.
Almost all abortions are now banned in Louisiana and Mississippi. In Tennessee, an abortion ban is expected to go into effect within days. Even before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the historic Roe v. Wade case in June, people from Tennessee were already traveling to Illinois to get an abortion.
In 2020, there were 108 people who traveled from Tennessee to get an abortion in Illinois, according to statistics from the Illinois Department of Public Health. That year, there were 9,686 people from out of state who traveled to Illinois to get abortions, according to the state’s statistics.
The ride also highlighted hurdles people could face in trying to get an abortion in Illinois — like the costs to get here. Harris said her round-trip ticket cost $200, not counting some people’s need for lodging, child care or food.
Amber Sherman, an activist from Tennessee, said it was one of the first times she ever traveled by train. She noted the train was cold and it was difficult to know when passengers can buy food. Others noted the train delays could mean someone would miss an appointment in Chicago, and it could be a difficult trip for those with disabilities because of the tight spaces.
But traveling by train might be the only option for those who can’t fly or don’t have a car, the group said.
Valencia Robinson, the executive director of Mississippi in Action, said people in her state can’t openly talk about the abortion pill. She noted that a man threatened to rip off her shirt that stated, “Our bodies, our futures, our abortions” while she waited for the train.
Robinson said her group will continue to push for access to abortions, though the new restrictive laws will mean it has to do it differently than in the past.
“We’re not going to run an underground railroad,” Robinson said. “We’re going to be out publicly, loud and proud because we are not hiding this issue. People that need to access abortion, we are going to do what we have to do. And that’s the motto of Black and Brown women everywhere — to do what we have to do.”
Michelle Erenberg, the co-executive director of Lift Louisiana, said it is already seeing how the abortion bans are making it even more difficult for teens to access the procedure because they can’t easily travel across state lines without parental support.
“We’re going to see a massive increase in the rate of birth on people under the age of 18 in Louisiana and probably in all the surrounding states,” she said.
Sherman said the upcoming ban in Tennessee will only increase the criminalization that Black communities are already facing.
“We deserve the dignity to make decisions about our own bodies, about our lives and about our futures,” Sherman said.
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust