There’s an old saying that goes, “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.” For those us in the biker’s rights movement, those words are especially true. We need to understand our history if we’re going to continue to grow. We need to realize that the goals and objectives we started out with are the same ones we have today, and that even though there have been changes in the issues we face and in how we do things, the basic principles remain. With that in mind, let’s take a trip down memory lane, and see where the MRF fits into this picture.

In the late 1960s, Easyriders Magazine, at the urging of motorcycle clubs, began working on a nationwide effort to protect the rights of bikers. In the process of defining this new movement, they came up with the acronym ABATE, which stood for “A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments”. Easyriders’ choice of ABATE as an acronym was no accident. Webster defines the word abate as, “to beat down; to put an end to; to nullify; to reduce in degree or intensity.” In the counter-cultural times of the late sixties, the prevailing mood was, “its us against them”, with “them” being Big Brother in all his controlling forms. The job at hand was to nullify the intrusion of government into our personal lives, with a major emphasis on eliminating mandatory helmet laws.

In its infancy, ABATE was a loosely-knit organization. Memberships were sent in to and managed by Easyriders. State level activists – along with the folks at Easyriders – quickly realized that locally controlled organizations were needed, and the biker’s rights movement began to spread as state motorcyclists’ rights organizations (SMROs) started popping up around the country. Between the early 1970s and the mid-1980s, most of the SMROs we know today came into being as independent, autonomous organizations.

Many state groups formed under the name of ABATE, while others chose different acronyms such as the MMA (Modified Motorcycle Association) or NHMRO (New Hampshire Motorcyclist Rights Organization). Likewise, some of the ABATE organizations stuck with Easyriders’ original meaning of A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments, while others went with variations such as American Bikers Aimed Toward Education, or A Brotherhood Active Toward Education. Some groups were formed only to go out of existence a short time later, and others sprang up to take their place. Throughout all of this, even though the names of the SMROs and the players involved changed as the movement grew, the basic goals and objectives were firmly in place.

Our early leaders recognized that for local groups to succeed, they would need to attract as many activists as possible. As things evolved, it also became clear that groups would need to act as effective legislative representatives for all riders, regardless of what type of bike the person rode, regardless of whether the person wore a patch on his back or not, and regardless of a person’s sex or race. Every interested biker was to be encouraged to become active in the group, and everyone was to be represented in the same way.

The success rate for actually meeting those goals was something of a mixed bag. For instance, there was a time not so long ago when people who rode bikes other than Harley-Davidson’s were treated – at best – as second class citizens if they tried to participate in our groups. At worst, these people were ridiculed because of the bike they rode, and were driven away from the group. Fortunately, that’s one “bad attitude” that has all but died. Other prejudices existed as well, particularly regarding the role that women and minorities played in our groups. In many if not all organizations today, those issues have been at least partially addressed, although we still need to make improvements.

On a broader scale, state groups during the 1970s and early 1980s had very little communication between themselves. They also displayed an unhealthy degree of distrust when it came to activists from other states. As a consequence, rather than learning from each other, groups all over the country were constantly reinventing the wheel and the same mistakes were made over and over again.

But there were some real success stories, too. In 1975, a group of concerned activists went to Washington, DC to lobby against the first national helmet law. Originally passed in 1966, this legislation blackmailed the states into passing helmet laws for all riders by withholding highway funds if the state did not comply. As a result, by 1969 almost every state in the country had passed and was continuing to enforce a mandatory helmet law for all riders, with California and Illinois being the notable exceptions. Among the group who went to DC were current and former MRF Board of Directors and Steering Committee members Charlie Williams, Penny Walker, Sherman Packard and Rob Rasor. Ron Roloff of MMA of California and Ed Armstrong of ABATE of Chicago were there as well. While in Washington, Roloff, Armstrong and Rasor – who for many years now has been the AMA’s Vice President of Government Affairs – testified against the federal blackmail legislation before a House sub-committee. Due in no small part to that 1975 lobbying trip, the first federal helmet law was repealed by the U.S. Congress in May of 1976, and states were again able to decide the issue of mandatory helmet laws without worrying about losing federal funds. Over half of the states repealed or amended their helmet laws between 1976 and 1983 to give adult riders freedom of choice.

1975 was important for another reason. On Labor Day weekend of that year, a meeting was held at Lake Perry, Kansas to again discuss forming a national ABATE. The idea was to manage a national movement from California, with Easyriders Magazine again stepping into the picture. It was suggested that the SMROs should have less autonomy and control, and that the national organization should oversee things. Many leaders from SMROs attended the meeting, but were reluctant to give up any control of their own organizations, preferring to remain independent. This would be the last serious attempt to bring the SMROs together for the next ten years.

As the seventies closed and the eighties opened, a lack of trust and communication between the various state organizations was still hurting the movement. We had begun to stagnate, and we needed to understand that we were in fact all on the same team, that we could do a lot more by working together than we ever could by ourselves. So, in 1985, another attempt was made to bring people together. By this point in time, leaders in the biker’s rights world clearly understood that maintaining the sanctity of the state groups was paramount, and no one was interested in forming a national group that would oversee the activities of the SMROs. The idea was to simply offer a forum for open communication between the SMROs in a setting where people could get to know each other and start to share ideas. That forum was the first MRF Meeting of the Minds, held in St. Louis in September of 1985, and it proved to be a defining moment in the history of biker’s rights. While many of the attendees were distrustful walking in, by the end of the conference every person in attendance knew that something significant had happened.

In many ways, that first Meeting of the Minds marked the beginning of the modern era of biker’s rights. By the time the second Meeting of the Minds rolled around in September of 1986, people were doing workshops and presentations. The biker’s rights movement had taken on a new energy, and learning how to do a better job in terms of organizational skills and legislative expertise were hot topics. Threats from the federal government were cropping up again, and discussions were held as to what could be done. By 1987, the MRF Steering Committee decided that biker’s needed a lobbyist in Washington, DC. Questions arose as to how to fund the operation, and as to finding a suitable person for the job. In 1988, MRF hired Wayne Curtin to fill that position, and thus became the first biker’s rights organization to have a full-time presence in Washington.

Those early years in DC saw the MRF and the biker’s rights movement go through some critical changes. MRF’s emphasis from day one was to establish a strong presence in the halls of Congress for all bikers by building an effective, unified network of activists from all over the country. MRF has always understood that the real power of the biker’s rights movement lies with the SMROs, and that for our movement to be effective on a national level we would have to apply the same grassroots approach to federal legislation that we applied to state laws back home. This meant that the SMROs had to be the driving force, with the MRF functioning as a strategist and facilitator. Soon after the MRF set up shop in DC, the AMA did the same. A powerful team was being formed.

From that point on things improved rapidly. Even though we had some setbacks, it quickly became obvious that there was no stopping our momentum. By 1991, bikers were being taken seriously in Congress, and federal legislators realized that we weren’t going away. Working in conjunction with the SMROs and the AMA, MRF played a vital role in removing all mention of motorcyclists from the 1991 Gang Control Act. 1991 also saw the passage of the second national helmet law, titled the Intermodal Surface Transportation Equity Act, or ISTEA. Like its 1966 predecessor, ISTEA attempted to force all states to pass full coverage helmet laws or face the loss of federal highway funding. In its original form, ISTEA would have penalized states to the tune of ten percent of their highway funds for not passing a mandatory helmet law for all riders. Although we weren’t strong enough at the time to stop this bill from being passed, we were able to get the penalty portion reduced from ten percent to three percent. This action proved to be highly significant, as state legislatures all over the country thumbed their noses at this latest federal blackmail attempt. Unlike the carnage that followed the 1966 legislation, only one state, Maryland, passed a helmet law as a result of ISTEA. In the meantime, the biker’s rights movement got down to the business of repealing the law.

In 1995, just four years after ISTEA had been passed, biker’s rights activists repealed the blackmail provisions in convincing fashion. 1996 saw the passage of pro-motorcycling legislation at the federal level regarding health care discrimination against motorcyclists. In 1998, pro-motorcycling language was included in TEA21, the Transportation Equity Act for the Twenty First Century. Also included in that bill were restrictions placed on federal agencies regarding lobbying at the state level. As we enter a new millennium, we find ourselves working on issues that affect motorcyclists worldwide, and forming new and stronger partnerships in the process.

As you can see, we’ve been through a lot of changes in the last thirty years. In the beginning, our movement focused almost entirely on helmet laws. We now tackle issues as diverse as global harmonization of motorcycle manufacturing standards and discriminatory insurance. We still fight helmet laws as hard as we ever have, but we’ve become a much more effective and well-rounded voice for motorcycling. In many cases, we’ve gone from being on the defensive to taking the offensive. Rather than reacting to policies set by those who want to regulate all aspects of motorcycling, we are more likely today to be the ones helping to set policy.

That’s not to say we don’t have a lot of work to do, or that we are as strong as we can be. We still have disagreements from time to time, including issues such as whether insurance provisions should be used in an effort to amend helmet laws. While MRF has not shied away from these issues, and has not hesitated to make its positions known, neither have we forgotten those basic ideals that formed the foundation of our movement. The MRF today, as it always has, believes in the sanctity of the SMROs. We never have, and never will, take direct action on a state level issue unless invited to do so by the SMRO.

MRF is still here for motorcycle clubs as well. Paul Vestal, MRF’s president from 1991 through 1994, has been a patcholder for most of his adult life. Other club members have served on the MRF board as well, and many clubs have been and continue to be Sustaining Members of the MRF. In January of this year, the Arizona Confederation of Motorcycle Clubs joined the ranks of those clubs who are Sustaining Members of the MRF. This marks the first time that a confederation has taken this step, but we hope it won’t be the last.

Through all the changes, and all the ups and downs, our basic ideals remain. Just like we started out back in the late sixties, all we really want is for the government to stop trying to run our lives and steal our freedom. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.