No, Margaret Sanger Didn’t Want To Exterminate African-Americans

image of two Margaret Sanger quote memes that are wrong
Two out of context Margaret Sanger quotes that mislead readers

One tactic that forced birth conservatives use to argue against abortion is an old refuted argument that Margaret Sanger, one of the founders of Planned Parenthood, was a racist. They use a quote out of context from a 1930s letter she wrote advocating for birth control clinics for the African-American community in the South and a quote that intentionally puts a negative light on her support of the now discredited Eugenics movement. The goal of the memes isn’t to educate about Margaret Sanger but to smear her.

The two quotes I’ve seen posted on Facebook by conservative friends of mine can be seen in the image to the right of this post. 

The recent postings are related to Hillary Clinton running for President this year. Clinton said in 2009 that she admires Sanger. The other point forced birth conservatives want to make is related to the now discredited video that claims Planned Parenthood was selling aborted fetus parts for profit.

The first quote is:

“We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population”

No doubt the quote sounds racist. It has been taken out of context, as historical quotes often are, to fit an agenda.

The quote about exterminating African-Americans comes up from time to time by Republicans looking for African-American support for abortion restrictions and for votes against Democrats who generally support abortion and are used by some African-American activists to show how white people can’t be trusted.

The problem is the quote is taken completely out of context.

The Negro Project, instigated in 1939 by Margaret Sanger, was one of the first major undertakings of the new Birth Control Federation of America (BCFA), the product of a merger between the American Birth Control League and Sanger’s Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau, and one of the more controversial campaigns of the birth control movement. Developed by white birth control reformers, who consulted with African-Americans for help in promoting the project only well after its inception, the Negro Project and associated campaigns were, nevertheless, widely supported by such black leaders as Mary McLeod Bethune, W. E. B. DuBois, and Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Influenced strongly by both the eugenics movement and the progressive welfare programs of the New Deal era, the Negro Project was, from the start, largely indifferent to the needs of the black community and constructed in terms and with perceptions that today smack of racism.

However, once funding was secured, the project slipped from Sanger’s hands. She had proposed that the money go to train “an up and doing modern minister, colored, and an up and doing modern colored medical man” at her New York clinic who would then tour “as many Southern cities and organizations and churches and medical societies as they can get before” and “preach and preach and preach!” She believed that after a year of such “educational agitation” the Federation could support a “practical campaign for supplying mothers with contraceptives.” Before going in and establishing clinics, Sanger thought it critical to gain the support and involvement of the African-American community (not just its leaders) and establish a foundation of trust. Her proposal derived from the work of activists in the field, discussions with black leaders and her experience with the New York clinics. Sanger understood the concerns of some within the black community about having Northern whites intervene in the most intimate aspect of their lives. “I do not believe” she warned, “that this project should be directed or run by white medical men. The Federation should direct it with the guidance and assistance of the colored group – perhaps, particularly and specifically formed for the purpose.” To succeed, she wrote, “It takes a very strong heart and an individual well entrenched in the community. . . .” (MS to Gamble, Nov. 26, 1939, and MS to Robert Seibels, Feb. 12, 1940 [MSM S17:514, 891].)

Sanger reiterated the need for black ministers to head up the project in a letter to Clarence Gamble in Dec. 1939, arguing that: “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.” This passage has been repeatedly extracted by Sanger’s detractors as evidence that she led a calculated effort to reduce the black population against their will. From African-American activist Angela Davis on the left to conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza on the right, this statement alone has condemned Sanger to a perpetual waltz with Hitler and the KKK. Davis quoted the incendiary passage in her 1983 Women, Race and Class, claiming that the Negro Project “confirmed the ideological victory of the racism associated with eugenic ideas.” D’Souza used the quote to buttress erroneous claims that Sanger called blacks “human weeds” and a “menace to civilization” in his best-selling 1995 book The End of Racism. The argument that Sanger co-opted black clergy and community leaders to exterminate their own race not only gives Sanger unwarranted credit as a remarkably cunning manipulator, but also suggests that African-Americans were passive receptors of birth control reform, incapable of making their own decisions about family size; and that black leaders were ignorant and gullible.

“Birth Control or Race Control? Sanger and the Negro Project”

It’s clear from the record that Sanger wanted to involve African-American ministers in the leadership of the project so that the African-American community WOULD NOT think the project was to exterminate them. It turns out that Sanger’s fears were right because the Birth Control Federation of America allowed only white doctors to administer the program and participation rates were small.

The second quote I have an issue with is:

“Birth control must lead ultimately to a cleaner race.”

I haven’t been able to verify if the quote is actually published as stated on the meme since the only source I could find was a cite to a 1922 pamphlet by Sanger titled “Women, Morality, and Birth Control”. The actual wording of the quote isn’t needed in this case since it is the idea that is being inferred. 

Margaret Sanger was a supporter of the now discredited Eugenics movement that existed from the late 19th century into the 1970s. The reason forced birth conservatives bring up the Sanger connection is to taint her work with an attempted connection with the Nazis in Germany. The Nazi application of Eugenics led to the Holocaust. The reality is Sanger agreed with the more benign progressive uses of Eugenics and not the abuses that then happened in many states and countries during the time the movement was active.

Eugenics is a theory of improving hereditary qualities by socially controlling human reproduction. Eugenicists, including the Nazis, were opposed to the use of contraception or abortion by healthy and “fit” women (Grossmann, 1995). In fact, Sanger’s books were among the very first burned by the Nazis in their campaign against family planning (“Sanger on Exhibit,” 1999/2000). (Sanger helped several Jewish women and men and others escape the Nazi regime in Germany (“Margaret Sanger and the ‘Refugee Department’,” 1993).)

Sanger, however, clearly identified with the broader issues of health and fitness that concerned the early 20th-century eugenics movement, which was enormously popular and well-respected during the 1920s and ’30s — decades in which treatments for many hereditary and disabling conditions were unknown. But Sanger always believed that reproductive decisions should be made on an individual and not a social or cultural basis, and she consistently and firmly repudiated any racial application of eugenics principles. For example, Sanger vocally opposed the racial stereotyping that effected passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, on the grounds that intelligence and other inherited traits vary by individual and not by group (Chesler, 1992).

Though she tried for years, Sanger was unable to convince the leaders of the eugenics movement to accept her credo that “No woman can be free who does not own and control her body (Sanger, 1920).”

Nevertheless, anti-family planning activists continue to attack Sanger, who has been dead for nearly 40 years, because she is an easier target than the unassailable reputation of Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and the contemporary family planning movement. However, attempts to discredit the family planning movement because its early 20th-century founder was not a perfect model of early 21st-century values is like disavowing the Declaration of Independence because its author, Thomas Jefferson, bought and sold slaves.

Opposition Claims About Margaret Sanger

I like that last statement: However, attempts to discredit the family planning movement because its early 20th-century founder was not a perfect model of early 21st-century values is like disavowing the Declaration of Independence because its author, Thomas Jefferson, bought and sold slaves.

Yes it does.

Forced birth conservatives also ignore the fact that Sanger never promoted abortion. In her lifetime abortion was illegal and dangerous. She promoted and was an activist for birth control – where a woman decided to have a child or not using contraceptives and education to plan her family on her own terms.

Birth control use leads to less need for abortions so you would think these forced birth conservatives would champion more birth control – but many of them don’t support it. Many of them equate birth control and abortion. They want it both ways – no birth control and no abortion. They seem to hate women having control over their own bodies.

No, Margaret Sanger didn’t want to exterminate African-Americans and she wasn’t a racist. She was a pioneer in family planning and women’s rights.