Anti-vaccine protesters are likening themselves to civil rights activists

A chorus of mostly white women sang the gospel song “We Shall Overcome” in the California State Capitol, an anthem of the civil rights movement. Mothers rallied outside the governor’s office and marched through Capitol corridors chanting “No segregation, no discrimination, yes on education for all!” Some wore T-shirts that read “Freedom Keepers.”

But this wasn’t about racial equality. In the nation’s most diverse state, protesters opposed to childhood vaccine mandates — many from affluent coastal areas — had co-opted the civil rights mantle from the 1960s, insisting that their plight is comparable to what African Americans have suffered from segregationist policies.

The approach reflected the level of desperation among families staunchly opposed to vaccinating their children.

Hundreds of vaccine protesters were galvanized this month to oppose legislation that would crack down on medical exemptions to childhood immunizations. Four years ago, California eliminated personal belief and religious exemptions, which had long been the most common ways to avoid vaccines and still enroll children in school.

Now, California was taking aim at the last option for families deeply opposed to vaccinating their children, following a wave of measles outbreaks across the country. A handful of doctors sympathetic to their beliefs had been providing waivers that allowed parents to keep their kids unvaccinated, including Robert Sears, a member of the famed Sears medical family that had dispensed pediatric advice to parents for decades.

According to the California Department of Public Health, the number of unvaccinated children in homeschooling has skyrocketed since the state banned personal belief and religious exemptions in 2015. Students with personal belief exemptions in California schools were predominantly white and wealthy, according to a study by the American Public Health Association in 2015. Medical exemptions, intended for children with weakened immune systems, have surged since then — and are disproportionately white.