James Barrett — Unitarian Universalist Reproductive Justice Activist

Note – this is the text for a short talk that I gave on 31 August 2014 as part of a worship service for All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.  The podcast audio recording for this can be found here (my portion starts at the 9:10 mark).

Who has heard of Rev James Reeb?

He’s a famous Unitarian Universalist who made the ultimate sacrifice – giving his life supporting racial justice in 1965.

Now, who has heard of James Barrett, Lt Colonel (US Air Force – retired)?

Jim Barrett is less well-known but he could be considered our “James Reeb of reproductive justice.”

James Barrett served as a combat aviator in WWII (North Africa), the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He served in military assignments from 1941 until his retirement in 1969 in many locations – Greenland, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Japan.

His post-military career included teaching middle school math and science classes. He was also a social justice activist and a dedicated volunteer in his Pensacola FL Unitarian Universalist congregation (serving on the congregation’s Ministerial Committee).

Jim worked with Zero-Population Growth (manning their booths at fairs and community events). He was a volunteer with Escambia AIDS Services and Education (EASE). He was a lifetime member of the Pensacola Retired Officers Association and served on their Scholarship Committee. He was active in Pensacola Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) and served on the board of a local gay and lesbian publication. He was a friend and advocate of lesbian and gay rights and was considered to be extended family by many in the gay and lesbian communities.

Jim was a member and supporter of the National Organization for Women and served as a clinic escort volunteer for about 18 months at the Ninth Avenue Ladies Center Clinic in Pensacola (which was the site of a Christmas abortion clinic bombing attack in 1984).

Many years ago (29 July 1994 – a Friday morning), James Barrett and his wife June were serving as escort volunteers at the Pensacola abortion clinic. Jim and June were in their pickup truck with Dr John Britton as they approached the clinic.

Paul Hill – a regular protester at this clinic – opened fire on Dr Britton, Jim Barrett, and June Barrett with his shotgun. Dr Britton and Jim Barrett were killed instantly. June Barrett was wounded but she survived this shotgun attack (she passed away in 2011).

Lt Col Barrett viewed his clinic escort work as an extension of his military service. His daughter commented after the shooting:

“My dad was a military man, and there’s a stereotype of the military man, that he’s all about war. But dad taught me from the time I could understand that his primary mission was to keep the peace. That’s what his feeling was the day he died.”

Lt Col Barrett also was plain-spoken about his clinic escort work:

“I’ve spent my life doing my best for the security of my country and the people who live in it. Why should I stop now?”

And Jim’s brother Reggie added:

“He loved to help people. If a woman needed help, he would help, and that’s what he died for.”

Lt Col Barrett’s sacrifice is mentioned in our denomination’s Our Whole Lives Grades 7-9 sexuality education curriculum as part of our shared Unitarian Universalist heritage supporting reproductive justice work dating from 1963 to the present day.

Lt Col Barrett’s life and death should spur us on to continue with our denomination’s current reproductive justice work. Reproductive justice is our denomination’s current study/action issue for 2012 to 2016.

Within the framework of “reproductive justice,” Unitarian Universalist congregations across the nation are working against the cultural, political, economic, and structural constraints that limit women’s access to health care and full reproductive choice.

Reproductive justice – a concept developed by coalitions of women of color – promotes the right of all women to have children, not to have children, and to raise their children in safe and healthy environments.

Reproductive justice does not isolate or pit important social issues against each other – rather it works to promote these rights across many areas including:

  • abortion rights and access
  • eradication of violence against women
  • comprehensive sexuality education
  • discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, and gender identity
  • economic justice
  • environmental justice
  • immigration justice

Lt Col Barrett’s prophetic social witness touched on many of these reproductive justice issues. And we still have plenty of work to do with these issues in our nation, our state, and our community.

Thank you.

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