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Animal Rights and Civil Rights

 “I think how we treat our animals reflects how we treat each other, and it’s very important that we have a President who is mindful of the cruelty that is perpetrated on animals.”
- President-Elect Barack Obama, 2008

In 1968, civil rights leader Dick Gregory compared humanity’s treatment of animals to the conditions of America’s inner cities:

“Animals and humans suffer and die alike. If you had to kill your own hog before you ate it, most likely you would not be able to do it. To hear the hog scream, to see the blood spill, to see the baby being taken away from its momma, and to see the look of death in the animal’s eye would turn your stomach. So you get the man at the packing house to do the killing for you.

“In like manner, if the wealthy aristocrats who are perpetuating conditions in the ghetto actually heard the screams of ghetto suffering, or saw the slow death of hungry little kids, or witnessed the strangulation of manhood and dignity, they could not continue the killing. But the wealthy are protected from such horror...If you can justify killing to eat meat, you can justify the conditions of the ghetto. I cannot justify either one.”

Gregory credits the Judeo-Christian ethic and the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with having caused him to become a vegetarian. In 1973, he drew a connection between vegetarianism and nonviolent civil disobedience:

"...the philosophy of nonviolence, which I learned from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during my involvement in the civil rights movement was first responsible for my change in diet. I became a vegetarian in 1965. I had been a participant in all of the ‘major’ and most of the ‘minor’ civil rights demonstrations of the early sixties, including the March on Washington and the Selma to Montgomery March.

“Under the leadership of Dr. King, I became totally committed to nonviolence, and I was convinced that nonviolence meant opposition to killing in any form. I felt the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ applied to human beings not only in their dealings with each other—war, lynching, assassination, murder and the like—but in their practice of killing animals for food or sport. Animals and humans suffer and die alike...Violence causes the same pain, the same spilling of blood, the same stench of death, the same arrogant, cruel and brutal taking of life.”

In a 1979 interview, Gregory explained: “Because of the civil rights movement, I decided I couldn’t be thoroughly nonviolent and participate in the destruction of animals for my dinner...I didn’t become a vegetarian for health reasons; I became a vegetarian strictly for moral reasons...Vegetarianism will definitely become a people’s movement.”

When asked if humans will ultimately have to answer to a Supreme Being for their exploitation of animals, Gregory replied, “I think we answer for that every time we go to the hospital with cancer and other diseases.”

Gregory has also expressed the opinion that the plight of the poor will improve as humans cease to slaughter animals: “I would say that the treatment of animals has something to do with the treatment of people. The Europeans have always regarded their slaves and the people they have colonized as animals.”

Since the 1980s, Dick Gregory has been involved in the anti-drug campaign. Bruce Friedrich of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) reported back in the '90s that under Gregory’s influence, Dexter Scott King—head of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolence in Atlanta, and son of the slain civil rights leader—and King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, had both become vegans.

Peter Singer concludes in Animal Liberation that “by ceasing to rear and kill animals for food, we can make extra food available for humans that, properly distributed, would eliminate starvation and malnutrition from this planet. Animal liberation is human liberation, too.” The animal rights movement should be supported by all caring Americans.

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