As an activist for women’s and reproductive rights, Loretta J. Ross isn’t afraid to speak frankly about her own trials and tribulations. An unplanned pregnancy in high school nearly forced Ross to end her education, she said in her keynote speech on Monday to University and community members at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.
President Robert Zimmer, in his opening remarks at Monday’s annual commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr., spoke of the remarkable complexity of King’s achievements and the ways in which to interpret his legacy. Ross, the event’s keynote speaker, is the founder and national coordinator of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective and provided the gathered community and University audience with her interpretation of King’s dream and message, emphasizing her belief that King never meant to build a civil rights movement, but a human rights one.
Ross, a self-proclaimed black feminist and daughter of conservative parents, grew up in rural Texas but was first drawn to the movement when an unplanned high school pregnancy jeopardized her academic career.
“They threatened to kick me out,” Ross said. “They said that if I stayed, other girls would get pregnant. That’s the kind of sex education we had back then. But they weren’t putting me out. Education was my key out of poverty.”
Ross had her son, even though it meant the forfeiture of a scholarship to Radcliffe College, and she instead enrolled at Howard University, where she majored in chemistry and physics. It was there that she found herself entangled in a program that left her sterile at the age of 23. Ross later joined the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR), a non profit that aids defectors from violence and hate groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazi movement.
“As a feminist, I had never worked in the civil rights movement; it was beautiful,” Ross said. “Everyone in America has to put up with racism and white supremacy. At CDR, we got paid to fight it.”
It was there that she met Floyd Cochran, the former white supremacist leader who had recruited thousands of people to the Aryan Nations and then later abandoned the movement, which had turned on him because of his son’s congenital deformity.
“While we traveled across the country, Floyd asked me if there was a movement he could join. He said he was a movement-building guy,” said Ross.
Ross turned to C.T. Vivian, a close friend of and prominent organizer in King’s movement. Vivian referred Ross to King’s Last Sermon, given on March 31, 1968. In it, King spoke of a triple revolution in technology, weaponry, and, most importantly, in human rights.
“C.T. said, ‘Martin never meant to build a civil rights movement. He meant to build a human rights movement,’” Ross said.
According to Ross, King also had a plan for making the human rights movement a reality. In 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations (U.N.). The document created a deep divide within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the burgeoning civil rights movement about the need to charge the American government with a violation of the U.N. declaration, which included continued discrimination and pervasiveness of Jim Crow laws. NAACP leaders were concerned that if it embraced the declaration, it would be labeled a communist organization—a dangerous proposition during the McCarthy era. Consequently, the black activists largely limited themselves to demanding only civil rights that sought to guarantee basic equality to individuals. It was with this distinction, claimed Ross, that the civil rights movement made its mistake—a mistake that King sought to correct.
“The black movement confined itself to fighting for civil rights,” Ross said. “I didn’t embrace human rights. This was Dr. King’s dream—human rights. He had his eyes on the prize.”
For King, “human rights” was an umbrella term that included civil, economic, political, social, cultural, environmental, developmental, and sexual rights. Ignorance about the definition of the term “human rights,” according to Ross, enables individuals to complicate relatively simple issues, from the right to education to the right of developing nations to control their own natural resources.
“Martin Luther King’s dream and plan was to create a movement that focused on all the human rights. What we have are segregated social justice movements which are all parallel but mostly disconnected,” said Ross. “The best way to honor Dr. King is to create a human rights movement and unify all the different movements. This is our chance to pick up on Dr. King’s dream. What is wrong with bringing the human rights movement home?”
In addition to her work toward reproductive and civil rights, Ross has testified on women’s health and human rights issues before Congress, the U.N., and the FDA. She served eight years on the Washington, D.C., Commission for Women and she currently sits on the board of directors for the Foundation for African-American Women; the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission; the Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment; and SisterLove Women’s AIDS Project.