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According to the British Daily Mail of March 8, 2011 there has been yet another attempt to link Margaret Sanger to race genocide:

The Mail reported that a billboard in Flint, Michigan was banned for using this quote from Sanger: “We do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.” Flint Area Right to Life, the group responsible for the billboard, was quoted as saying that the ban is hiding the truth about Sanger: “If you read her biography, she was very much tied to the Ku Klux Klan, to the Nazis, to Hitler. She very much wanted thoroughbreds. That’s the word she used, thoroughbreds, and the way to make that happen was to eliminate minorities. She called them weeds in the garden of life. Those are her words. It’s an accurate historic quote.”

Planned Parenthood’s Mid and South Michigan affiliate responded rather feebly, in my estimation, noting that the criticisms came from anti-choice groups who took Sanger’s words out of context. PPFA usually makes the case that Sanger embraced ideas that are not popular today–that she was a product of her time, unenlightened about what have become sensitive social issues. The local affiliate followed the usual line of thinking. Desiree Cooper, director of community and media relations for Planned Parenthood of Mid and South Michigan, used the old Thomas Jefferson comparison. “We hold up Thomas Jefferson as one of our founding fathers, the author of the Declaration,” she told a reporter. “He owned slaves, and he was talking about the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The problem with this defense is that it doesn’t address the fact that the original attack on Sanger is not historically accurate. Her remark that “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population” is extracted from a 1939 letter she wrote to birth control advocate Clarence Gamble about the best strategy for delivering contraceptive services to poor black women in the rural South. Sanger, a champion of educating each woman about her reproductive options, was aware of fears among African Americans–inflamed by the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey and others–-about the survival of the black race. Sanger wanted to work with the black community, not impose her views on it. She told Gamble that, “while the colored Negroes have great respect for white doctors they can get closer to their own members and more or less lay their cards on the table. . . . they do not do this with the white people and if we can train the Negro doctor at the clinic, he can go among them with enthusiasm and with knowledge, which, I believe, will have far-reaching results among the colored people.” She believed that ministers would also play an important role in allaying black fears, explaining, “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.”

What is always missing from these over-simplified, historically inaccurate accounts is that spreading information about birth control was often fraught with peril. It demanded careful political and legal strategies, and community-based education and planning. What is so easily overlooked is that Sanger and other movement leaders believed birth control is a basic human right, but not something that can be imposed on individuals or groups.

The remark about wanting to create “a race of thoroughbreds” was made, not by Sanger, but by Dr. Edward A. Kempf, a physician who argued for state-funded maternal and infant care clinics. “Society must make life worth the living and the refining for the individual,” Kempf wrote, “by conditioning him to love and to seek the love-object in a manner that reflects a constructive effect upon his fellow-men and by giving him suitable opportunities. The virility of the automatic apparatus is destroyed by excessive gormandizing or hunger, by excessive wealth or poverty, by excessive work or idleness, by sexual abuse or intolerant prudishness. The noblest and most difficult art of all is the raising of human thoroughbreds.” Sanger quoted Kempf’s phrase in her book The Pivot of Civilization. She also used the phrase as the banner on the November 1921 issue of the Birth Control Review, the journal she edited until 1929: “Birth Control: To Create a Race of Thoroughbreds.”

Margaret Sanger did try to ally herself with the eugenics movement, but clearly rejected racist eugenic thinking. And she did attend a woman’s Ku Klux Klan meeting in New Jersey in the 1920s to get support for birth control lobbying. It was not a particularly successful event for her (and she found it spooky). Sanger was almost always willing to work with others who supported birth control, regardless of whether or not she agreed with them on other beliefs and issues. However, her tendency to wear blinders in order to promote her controversial cause and secure scientific support from respected eugenicists was not akin to owning slaves.

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