Pocahontas native Caroline Jackson Morgan fled for bluer pastures a few years ago, moving her family to Rhode Island for an East Coast reprieve from the South’s rightward march. While there, Morgan joined the Red Cloak Society and successfully lobbied to codify the legal right to abortion in the state. In 2020 Morgan came back, bringing a rack full of red robes and her fire for reproductive justice with her. A dedicated full-time volunteer, Morgan spends a lot of her time at the Arkansas Capitol, protesting against and bearing witness to the right’s attacks on reproductive freedom.
What made you decide to skip town in 2017 and move to Rhode Island?
After Trump got elected, I thought, I can’t do this down here. I just can’t. My husband’s corporate gig was on the East Coast, and it’s easier to do the work when you live there. So we bolted. Rhode Island is the smallest, loveliest, beautiful, diverse, eclectic, weird, just phenomenal place. I made some really, really good friends there.
So why did you come back?
We came home for family. COVID just kind of realigns your thinking on what’s important, and family is important. All my family is in Arkansas, so we came home.
You moved to Little Rock in September of 2020. What have you been up to since then?
I’m a full-time volunteer. My job is to show up to the statehouse to promote body autonomy and equality, to show up for the people who are working. The Capitol does not make it easy for folks to show up, in more ways than one, with parking, with what time of day things are happening, limiting testimony to two minutes. It’s the people’s house, but it’s not.
You’ve been known to appear at the Capitol in red robes, and you’ve got a rack of red robes in your hallway. What’s that all about?
There’s a national organization called the Red Cloaks [based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”], and I learned about the Little Rock Red Cloaks right about the time I moved home to Little Rock. I had been showing up at the Rhode Island Statehouse in Providence with the Womxn Project as their volunteer lobbyist. We got Roe v. Wade codified in 2019 after 26 years of trying to get it done. Rhode Island is the most Catholic state in the United States, and I was living up at the Statehouse, wearing that handmaid costume. It was just fantastical. So Rhode Island didn’t need the red cloaks anymore, so I told the Womxn Project, ‘Hey, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be able to use these down in Little Rock.’ Now I show up here with the red cloaks. I usually bring extras. They’re for sale, $25 each, and the money goes back to support the Womxn Project in Rhode Island.
They’re not fun to wear. They’re hot, they limit your sight and what you can hear and what you can say. So they’re very much like how reproductive justice is being stamped down in Arkansas. The cloaks just embody all of that.
When you go to the Capitol in your red cloaks, what message are you sending?
Stay away from my uterus and let me make my family planning decisions. Trust women.
Leave us alone. That’s it.
Although I think the senator from Bigelow [Jason Rapert] thinks we’re witches or devil worshippers. I have had people call me a baby killer, say I will be dancing with the devil down in hell. Well, that’s on me. Thanks for your concern, but I’m good with my choices. Please back away from my uterus.
My whole family is very supportive of my work. I wasn’t always this involved, and I regret that.
I feel like this is on me that this happened because I wasn’t paying attention.
It takes a lot of bravery to stand up for reproductive rights at this particular point in time in Arkansas. Why do you do it?
Because — unless something changes drastically — we are heading down the road to “The Handmaid’s Tale” coming true, and that scares the hell out of me. Rich white ladies are still going to be able to leave the state and get an abortion. Any bans will adversely affect women of color and those without the resources to travel out of state. That’s why I’m such a fan of the Arkansas Abortion Support Network. I like grassroots volunteer groups because they’re wily.
Realistically this ban that they passed isn’t going to go. The ACLU isn’t going to let this happen.We’re going to spend about $100,000 to fight it in court. This is a love letter from that bully in Bigelow to the Supreme Court justices and it’s just not gonna happen. It’s a waste of time, energy and money in a poor state that has so many other issues we need to work on.
Religion is all up in the Arkansas Capitol this session, especially in discussions about abortion access and transgender rights. How do you push back when people invoke Christianity as the reason behind what they’re doing?
These conservative Christian groups are giving Jesus a bad name. I consider myself a fairly spiritual person. My spiritual being is loving and inclusive and supporting and forgiving. I don’t know what’s going on with their Jesus.
When the senator from Bigelow, the bullying senator — I don’t even want to say his name, he’s so awful — when he screams about 62 million dead babies, it’s hard to come back at that. But I want to come back with reproductive justice and reproductive freedom. Arkansas is at the top of the list for maternal mortality rates and infant mortality rates, but at the bottom for healthcare? He’s talking about dead babies, but I’m going to talk about dead babies, too. And dead mommas, especially Black dead mommas, because Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth. So we need to frame it differently, with body autonomy and reproductive freedom. Trust the women of Arkansas.
Did you anticipate how extreme this session would be?
I knew it was going to be bad. I didn’t realize how truly hateful, cruel and closed-minded it was going to be. I just happened to stumble on to the transgender kids’ testimony, and their parents. I think Sen. Greg Leding (D-Fayetteville) said” “This is what broke me.” When I saw that tweet, I thought, yeah. The kids, their parents, the medical staff, the doctors, the American Academy of Pediatrics, UAMS, Children’s Hospital. They were all there to testify for the kids. And then you have these out-of-state paid lobbyists who get flown in in from California who have maybe seen six transgender children ever. It’s like, what is actually going on here? It’s a shitshow. It’s a cruel shitshow. We’re in the national news all the time. Walmart wants to have folks move in to work for the company. Tyson, Stephens, all these businesses trying to recruit talent. I don’t know why people aren’t taking to the streets. I think because it doesn’t affect them. None of it affects the majority of people in our little white bubble.
It’s like Arkansas is stuck in almost a 1950s, “Father Knows Best” horror T.V. show where males are large and in charge and women, especially LGBTQ women and women of color, have no representation. And they’re running my beloved home state into the ground and I’m not having it.
What’s your plan to stop it?
My goal is to get more women elected in Arkansas. I think the General Assembly is 22 percent women, and that’s not enough.
What do you think is the real driver of the abortion ban, attacks on transgender rights, and all of these other extreme bills?
Fear. Fear and folks wanting to hold on to their power and not share power. And also just meanness. I’m gobsmacked to see what’s going on in my state. It’s just a toxic misogyny. I don’t know about you, but I almost feel like I need a bleach shower after coming home from being at the Capitol.
The GOP and, I think, Arkansas, are probably about 10 years behind. They see what happened at the national level when we had a huge influx of women of color running for office and winning. I feel like they see the writing on the wall. Subconsciously they’re thinking, ‘This may be my last effort, my last-gasp grasp of power,’ and they are just on their way out the door and burning everything down as they go. I can’t predict what ‘s going to happen, but I think it’s going to bite them in the butt.
Caroline Jackson Morgan
Children: Jessica, 22, and John David, 16
Book recommendation: “Our Time Is Now” by Stacey Abrams