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Henry Spira’s Legacy: Working Across Movements for Social Justice

Henry Spira’s Legacy: Working Across Movements for Social Justice

Henry Spira understood commonalities between the work of different social justice movements, and we should too. With the Occupy Wall Street protests breaking out all over the globe, it seems I hear the argument for the need to provide “a voice for the voiceless” in a new context everyday. Among vegan circles this is a common slogan in the framework of speaking up for animals. Last month, Anita Hill spoke at Hunter College on the 20 years since she testified before Congress about the sexual harassment she experienced and she too spoke out for the need to be “a voice for the voiceless” in the context of violence against women.

Importantly, Henry Spira learned from working with diverse social justice causes how to effectively make change for animals. He witnessed firsthand the power of the people during his time with the National Maritime Union and by participating with the civil rights movement during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the 1950s. After reading a review of Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation in the New York Review of Books, Henry Spira became curious about animal rights in the 70’s. Like so many activists, reading the work of Singer lead Spira to the consideration of animal consciousness and suffering.

In turn, decades later Spira’s biography and the details of much of his campaign work were outlined by Peter Singer  in the book “Ethics Into Action:Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement.” This book was one of the first I read, along with Carol J Adams’ “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” illustrating how different  political movements including feminism and vegetarianism are fighting common oppressions.

Spira believed consumers could be motivated to speak out for change for animals using some of the same non-violent tactics of the labor movement and civil rights campaigns. In Peter Singer’s documentary “One Man’s Way,” (recently made available for streaming on YouTube), we learn of the late Henry Spira’s many victories and landmark campaigns.

Henry Spira Revlon Ad

One of the earliest and most prominent of Spira’s targeted campaigns was that to halt the Draize test which tests for eye and skin irritancy caused by cosmetics and cleaning products. His work to raise awareness on this issue contributed significantly towards developing alternative methods of product testing by focusing specifically on one of the leading cosmetic companies, Revlon. As another example of his campaign work, Spira printed a full page ad entitled “Frank, are you telling the truth about your chickens?” in the New York Times outlining the truth of the suffering experienced by chickens at Purdue Farms. Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns, wrote in a tribute to Henry Spira who inspired her to her activist life, “Henry put the spotlight on chickens, the largest number of abused warm-blooded animals on earth. He put a face on the poultry industry by way of Frank Perdue.” Working together these two activist brought a national spotlight to the truth of the suffering of chickens on Frank Perdue’s farms.

An interesting review of Ethics into Action and Henry Spira’s activism was published from a socialist, feminist, anti-racist viewpoint on solidarity.org where the author writes about Spira,“Not only did he come to the struggle free of much of the baggage from the past, but he came focused on achieving goals rather than political positions. In short, he was ready to compromise and think “out of the box.” Spira’s willingness to compromise while working on animal rights campaigns has drawn both praise and criticism, though his desire to speak to and connect with the average citizen is without a doubt one of his greatest gifts to the movement.

You don’t have to be a socialist to appreciate the value of Spira discussed in the context of the labor movement and socialism. The American labor movement has a long history of establishing significant rights for working people including the 8 hour work day and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. By building on these achievements, the animal rights movement is better able to make change for animals. This point is driven home in one of Henry Spira’s most popular quotes:

“Animal liberation is also human liberation. Animal liberationists care about the quality of life for all. We recognize our kinship with all feeling beings. We identify with the powerless and the vulnerable, the victims, all those dominated, oppressed and exploited. And it is the non-human animals whose suffering is the most intense, widespread, expanding, systematic and socially sanctioned of all.”

In a recent article published by James McWilliams in the Atlantic, I was struck by the use of the word violence to describe factory farming and raising animals “humanely” for slaughter. There is indeed an inherent violence in our use of animals for food and product testing, as there is in sexual harassment and rape and in abusive labor practices.  Our violence to animals is a reflection of our willingness as a culture to allow other violences, a point many feminists have made. So what might we learn from other movements against violence to reframe the issue and work together for change?

Peter Singer’s recounting of the life and work of Henry Spira provides an inspiring story of a man motivated by compassion and a life of striving to achieve social justice. In an age when the words “animal activist” conjures up a stereotype bashed by the media, Henry Spira stands as an activist icon. His legacy in the movement refutes this negativity by offering a roadmap for activists determined to achieve coalition building. Henry Spira exemplifies how to work non-violently for change during a time when so many are ready to take action.

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