Courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection
In a 1945 interview published in the Chicago Defender, Margaret Sanger said:
“Discrimination is a world-wide thing. It has to be opposed everywhere. That is why I feel the Negro’s plight here is linked with that of the oppressed around the globe. The big answer, as I see it, is the education of the white man. The white man is the problem. It is the same as with the Nazis. We must change the white attitudes. That is where it lies.”
Wait one minute! I thought that Margaret Sanger was a racist Nazi bent on exterminating African-Americans who hobnobbed with Hitler! That’s what the Internet says. Accusations like these, once found only among fringe groups, on blogs and homemade websites, have been moving increasingly into the mainstream media. As historians who have dedicated years to making Sanger’s papers easily accessible, readable, and understandable it is disheartening to see these ahistorical attacks.
One of the difficulties of exploring Sanger’s views on race is that much is made of a very small number of historical documents. Though she sought to expand access to birth control information to all women, not just African-Americans, Sanger’s efforts to reach poor African-American women in the South in the late 1930s have been held up as proof of her malign intent to exterminate black babies. (for details on the Negro Project see our Newsletter article “Birth Control or Race Control”) Sanger’s views on eugenics, where she supports the idea that those less fit should have smaller families, have been interpreted to refer specifically to African-Americans, despite her explicit statement that her use of the term “unfit” did not refer to specific races or religions, a position about which she said: “I frankly deplore.” (“Questionnaire,” Feb. 13, 1934, in Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger, Volume 2, p. 277.) What we have found is that in the larger context of Sanger’s work, her work with African-American women doesn’t differ in any substantive way from the way that she worked with white women. But demonstrating this is not easy to fit into sound bites and Sanger left no documents that explicitly discussed issues of race.
Or did she? While searching the digital Historical African American Newspapers collection available through ProQuest, we came across the Chicago Defender interview. This short article contains possibly the most explicit comments about race and racism Sanger ever made. Published in the American Viewpoint column, the interview, entitled “On U.S. Birth and Bias Control” was 1945 conducted by Earl Conrad, a white journalist working in the Defender’s New York Bureau.
Conrad and Sanger discussed the problems facing American Negros as part of a broader world problem. “It is not just a Negro problem,” Sanger remarked, “Like the problems of the people of India, of minorities everywhere, it is a democratic problem. We have got to work all together on these issues.” She spoke of her trips to India and China, and said, “Knowing our own problem, it gave me greater sympathy with the others, with what I saw in the Orient. I can recall many horrible things I saw in India. I once saw a white man come out of a train; there were five or six Indians in his way; he just kicked them away–literally, with his foot. There were a hundred people around, who were powerless to strike him. The white man’s power and the Indian’s defenselessness were so unjust. “
In discussing birth control work among African-Americans, Sanger mused, “From the very beginning of birth control, there was the problem of approaching the Negro. Soon after I launched the campaign, a Harlem Methodist leader, who was most intelligent, questioned me about birth control. He was a brilliant speaker, and he had been thinking about it. Later a man named Harrison of the Urban League took up our idea.” In addition to Hubert Harrison, Sanger had the support of W.E.B. DuBois, and Rev. William Lloyd Imes in her efforts to open a Harlem branch of her downtown birth control clinic (for more on the Harlem branch, see Newsletter article “Looking Uptown”). Talking with Conrad in 1945, she mentioned that she felt that attitudes about African-Americans were slowly changing. “When we first started out an anti-Negro white man offered me $10,000 if I started in Harlem first. His idea was simply to cut down the number of Negroes. ‘Spread it as far as you can among them,’ he said. That is, of course, not our idea. I turned him down. But that is an example of how vicious some people can be about this thing.”
Conrad asked Sanger about her experiences regarding race in the South, during her many lectures there. “I remember addressing a colored church group once. I was staying with a white doctor at the time. They didn’t let a Negro doctor introduce me to the people. The white doctor had to do it. That was in Memphis. What hangs over the South is that the Negro has been in servitude. The white southerner is slow to forget this. His attitude is the archaic in this age. Supremacist thinking belongs in the museum.”
Sanger saw collaboration as the way to overcome racism. “One thing that is most helpful is to have people working together. When you have Negroes working with whites you have the breakdown of barriers, the beginning of progress. Negro groups must take the initiative, and not wait around for integration to come to them. They must get it themselves. The struggle for it will bring it. . . . Planned parenthood is not aimed at any one people. It is for all, and the objective is to do away with the waste of life. A sickly race is a weak race. As long as Negro mothers die in childbirth at two and one-half times the rate of white mothers, as long as Negro babies are dying at twice the rate of white babies, colored homes will be unhappy. Negro participation in planned parenthood means democratic participation in a democratic idea. Like other democratic ideas, planned parenthood places greater value on human life and the dignity of each person. Without planning at birth, the life of Negroes as a whole in a democratic world cannot be planned.” (Earl Conrad, “On U.S. Birth and Bias Control,” Chicago Defender, Sept. 22, 1945, 11, see our digital edition (currently in beta testing), Speeches and Articles of Margaret Sanger, 1911-1959 for a full transcription.)
It is the mission of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project to locate and publish documents like this one. We are working to complete a four-volume Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger that provides a carefully transcribed and annotated set of significant documents and we are also mounting a digital edition of Sanger’s public writings, that offers complete texts, carefully proofread and indexed. We are in the last stages of this work, working on the last volume and proofreading texts in the digital edition. But with the state of the economy and the controversy over Sanger, we fear that we might be forced to close our doors before we finish our work. If you are interested in helping the Sanger Papers complete its work, please visit our website and donate.