On her 15-hour train ride from Mississippi to Illinois, Valencia Robinson wore a gray T-shirt with white letters: “Our bodies, our futures, our abortions.” A man at the station threatened to rip her shirt off.
“His whole spiel became about genocide and Black women are killing black babies,” Robinson said. She is executive director of Mississippi in Action, a social justice organization focused on reproductive justice. Robinson said she remained calm but responded.
“I got his name, and I will be making a report because that’s violence. You don’t believe in abortion, but you believe in violence against a woman,” Robinson said.
She intentionally wore the abortion shirt because she is participating in Black August Freedom Rides. A coalition of 30 people from Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana who took the train this week to Chicago’s Union Station. They highlighted abortion bans in their states after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June; a clinic in Jackson, Mississippi, was the epicenter of the case. In many instances, Illinois — with its strong abortion rights laws on the books — is the closest state that offers abortion services.
“Despite this new reality, people will still need and seek abortion care, which will lead to the criminalization and surveillance of pregnant people. Abortion advocates in Mississippi and other red states are resilient. We are committed to fighting back,” Robinson said.
The freedom rides are a callback to the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans left the South for the North in search of better opportunities, and the young people who rode buses in the deep South in the 1960s to challenge segregation.
“We recognize that with the demise of Roe more Black people have even less access to abortion care and health care. Our people living in the Deep South will have to risk their health and wellness, migrating for reproductive health and survival,” said Lakeesha Harris of Lift Louisiana and lead organizer of Black August Freedom Rides. “While we deserve abortion access where we live and where we labor and pay our taxes, we demand a safe and uninhibited journey for our people seeking care in Northern states.”
Abortion is illegal in Mississippi, except if a mother’s life is in danger or a rape has been reported to law enforcement. Louisiana’s last three abortion clinics are leaving the state. On Aug. 25, all abortions will be illegal in Tennessee. Abortion-rights advocates in Illinois predicted the fall of Roe and pushed for new legislation to enshrine protections. In 2019, Gov. JB Pritzker signed the Reproductive Health Act, which takes abortion out of the criminal code and guarantees abortion as a human right. Choices, a clinic in Memphis, is opening a location in Carbondale.
The freedom riders traveled to show how cumbersome a train ride can be. A train is longer than a plane ride, uncomfortable for an hours-long trip and it takes time away from work. Access to abortion is just as important as the right to have one, they said, and abortion bans will hit Black people harder because they are disproportionately less likely to have access to affordable health care and birth control.
The coalition is also bringing attention to the federal commerce clause, which allows people to travel freely for goods, services and care, including abortion. But there are states with restricted abortion that don’t want women traveling to another state to get care. Harris said this clause needs to be protected.
“This federal law has been a line of contention in talks with Missouri and other places, and we want to protect it at all costs — and by any means necessary. Anything less would be a reconstitution of slavery in the South,” Harris said, obliquely referring to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a law Southern states used in trying to retain their property of enslaved African Americans.