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    The Kansas City Blues and Women’s Reproductive Freedom

    By John Lewis–

    When I was rummaging through old boxes from my childhood home recently, I came upon a decades-old newspaper that piqued my interest, not only because of its portrayal of an earlier time, but also because of its relevance today. It was the 1972 inaugural edition of The Symposium News, a free publication edited by Ken Kesey and published by the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC) in conjunction with a student organized political symposium. I grew up in Kansas City, where both of my parents were college professors: my dad at UMKC, my mother at Rockhurst College. My dad had likely picked up the paper on campus.

    As I flipped through the paper, I did a double-take when I came upon a poem written by Allen Ginsberg entitled “Troost Street Blues.” Troost Street?! That’s the location of Rockhurst, where my mother taught classical languages and history. I wondered what in the world Ginsberg could find poetic about Troost Street. I soon found out.

    It seems that while my mother was drilling her students on Latin conjugations, Allen and his lover were enjoying conjugal delights of their own down the street.

    However, the pair’s Troost Street lovemaking was a crime under state law. Missouri’s law criminalizing sex between two people of the same gender was overturned only in 2003 when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated all such laws across the country.

    I recently learned that upon orders from a university administrator, UMKC police had confiscated the paper from newsstands shortly after its publication because of Ginsberg’s explicit description of illicit homoerotic activities. It turns out that my dad had been very lucky to have grabbed a copy before the papers were whisked away.

    Something else was illegal in Missouri in 1972: a woman’s right to make her own decisions regarding reproduction. Missouri banned all abortions; the U.S. Supreme Court did not overturn such bans until the next year, 1973.

    Indeed, the newspaper devoted a 3-page spread to coverage of feminist activist and writer Robin Morgan’s participation in the conference. As Morgan aptly put it: “ … going one step further than the old Marxist dictum that workers must seize the means of production, we say women must seize the means of reproduction.”

    She observed that “[t]he history books tend to be written by white, straight males,” and that women “have been oppressed longer than any oppressed group and, dig it, we are not the minority—we are the majority of the entire species.”

    I was appalled to learn recently that today there’s nowhere in my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, where a woman can legally have an abortion—46 years after it became legal. Indeed, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is trying to shut down the state’s lone abortion clinic, located in St. Louis, as part of what Planned Parenthood considers a broader effort led by Missouri’s Republican Governor Mike Parson to restrict abortion.

    Missouri is one of 6 states with only one clinic where women can fully exercise their reproductive freedom. In May of this year, Governor Parson signed legislation outlawing abortion in Missouri after the eighth week of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape or incest and an exception for medical emergencies only when a physician can prove that such an emergency existed.

    Ginsberg’s poem “Troost Street Blues” is actually a lament because it, in fact, describes a return trip he made to Kansas City, this time after his lover had died—his beloved “belly’s in an ash urn.” Ginsberg is “back in Kansas City … Alone with my Alone.”

    Ginsberg’s vocabulary in the poem often invokes his love of Kansas City’s rich African American musical heritage, which he had experienced in some of the community’s local jazz clubs. And he also observes that “[t]here’s frightened deafed white folks in Kansas City” and analogizes his personal loss to political ones, assessing: “Kansas City got the blues.”

    Kansas City certainly has got the blues today when it comes to women’s reproductive freedom. Too many women find themselves “alone with their alone.” 

    But last month, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU sued to block Missouri’s new abortion law, which has not yet gone into effect. The St. Louis clinic is fighting to stay open.

    The masthead of the 1972 symposium newspaper reads, “Press On. … Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” 

    Forty-seven years later, we must continue to press on in the face of huge challenges that confront us now. When I return to Kansas City next, I hope to come back to place where women have more freedom than they do today. I hope to be singing a happier tune than the Troost Street Blues.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.