Leading influence on rise of animal rights movement
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., 1929-1968, in whose honor we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, never had any visible direct involvement with animals or animal issues––but he is justly remembered among the greatest influences on the animal rights movement of our time, and the many other animal advocacy causes that have splintered from it.
Martin Luther King Jr. was of course preoccupied with other causes and movements: not only the causes of black people, poor people, and other disadvantaged people in the U.S., but also opposition to the Vietnam War.
Meanwhile, during most of King’s lifetime, there was not much of an animal advocacy movement to speak out with, or for.
The mainstream humane movement, which had championed civil rights and social justice causes and stood up to the Ku Klux Klan from the mid-19th century through the 1930s, had in the post-World War II era largely abdicated moral leadership, while becoming overwhelmingly preoccupied with operating animal shelters whose major function had become killing ever increasing numbers of unwanted dogs and cats.
Coretta Scott King
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the animal rights movement as we have known it since the late 20th century was still seven or eight years from emerging.
Anti-vivisection activism had become co-opted by the radical right and was seemingly inextricably intertwined with opposition to teaching about evolution, opposition to vaccination, and fluoridating water.
But while Martin Luther King Jr. was never on record as a voice for animals, and did not live in times where he might have had much opportunity for lending his influential voice to animal causes, his widow, Coretta Scott King, spoke out for animals with her voice, her personal examples of kindness, and her lifestyle choices.
After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Coretta Scott King quietly raised their four children, including son Dexter Scott King, who became a prominent civil rights leader in his own right. She also continued as many of her late husband’s projects as she could. Through the influence of comedian/activist and animal advocate Dick Gregory, Dexter Scott King became a vegetarian in 1987. Coretta Scott King followed him into veganism in 1995.
Longtime friend Barbara A. Reynolds and others close to Coretta Scott King emphasized her vegan beliefs in published remembrances after her death in Atlanta on January 30, 2006, at age 78.
Dick Gregory, meanwhile, often attributed his decision to give up meat to the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. about nonviolence, which were in turn based on the teachings of Indian independence struggle leader Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), a lifelong vegetarian and advocate of vegetarianism.
The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. to animal advocacy had by then already become manifest through the work of Henry Spira, the founder of Animal Rights International and the Coalition for Nonviolent Food.
Born to a Jewish family in 1927, in Antwerp, Belgium, and known as Noah throughout childhood, Spira was in 1937 sent to live with relatives in Hamburg, Germany. Thus Spira survived Krystalnacht, the night of rioting in November 1938 that commenced the pogroms of World War II. The family joined Spira’s father in Panama soon afterward, then emigrated to New Jersey.
Involving himself in various causes before, after, and during a stint in the U.S. Army, Spira worked on a General Motors assembly line, sailed as a ship’s electrician, participated in union activism, and became a freelance investigative reporter for The Militant, the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party, under the pseudonym Henry Gitano.
From June to December 1956, Spira covered Martin Luther King Jr.’s anti-segregation boycott of the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama. Spira covered a similar boycott in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1957, then returned to New York to persuade unions, especially the United Auto Workers, to support desegregation.
In 1958-1959, Spira took on abuses of civil liberties by the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover in particular, at the height of Hoover’s clout. The FBI tried hard to discredit Spira, much as it tried to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. himself, but Spira’s research and character withstood the test even after he traveled to Cuba late in 1959 to report on the transformations underway there after the Communist takeover under Fidel Castro.
On April 1, 1961, two weeks before the CIA-directed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, Spira exposed how the CIA was training Cuban exiles in Guatemala to invade. Many lives and much embarrassment for U.S. president John F. Kennedy might have been spared, had the White House taken note that Castro knew the attack was coming.
Spira caught up with Martin Luther King Jr. again in 1963-1964, traveling with the Freedom Riders to cover King’s Mississippi voter registration campaign for The Independent and The Californian.
Eight years of frequent proximity to Martin Luther King Jr. guided Spira throughout the rest of his life.
A 1965 voyage to Guinea aboard the hospital ship S.S. Hope inspired Spira to become an award-winning teacher of English and journalism at Haaren High School in Spanish Harlem.
Spira & Peter Singer
Then, in 1973, Spira took a night school course taught by young philosopher Peter Singer. Spira encouraged Singer to expand a 1973 essay on why animals should enjoy rights into the book Animal Liberation, and allowed Singer to sleep on his couch while he was researching and writing it.
Inheriting a cat someone left with him at about the same time, Spira began to wonder why we cuddle some animals and eat others. Putting down his fork one night, he became an instant vegan.
Along the way, Spira learned that more than 100 years of antivivisectionism had never stopped a cruel experiment. He changed that with the 1976-1977 campaign that persuaded the American Museum of Natural history to end 18 years of sex experiments on maimed and disfigured cats. This was the beginning of the animal rights movement as we now know it.
Spira died in his sleep on September 12, 1998, at age 71.
Spira may have been the best known major figure in the animal rights movement who personally knew and worked with Martin Luther King Jr., and also with Cesar Chavez, the founder of United Farm Workers, who was a fellow longtime vegetarian.
But King’s influence on Spira was so profound, and Spira’s influence on animal advocacy so large, that animal advocates everywhere owe King a debt of appreciation on the day in his honor.