Was Margaret Sanger a Racist?
When I write about Margaret Sanger’s May 1926 speech to the women’s chapter of the KKK in Silverlake, New Jersey — as I did again recently — liberals get upset. They accuse me of distortion and even making up the whole thing. Many of them cannot find it within themselves to condemn this sordid moment. One writer in the Huffington Post, who was highly unimpressed with, went so far as to assert that the KKK “was almost a mainstream group then, if still clandestine.”
Well, maybe or maybe not, but it was still a rather hideous group. Can we not agree on that? This unending desire by the left to defend utterly everything about Planned Parenthood and its founder, Sanger, no matter how ugly, really is quite astonishing.
This same person who read my column went to pages 366-67 of Sanger’s 1938 autobiography — as I recommended doing — and accused me of “cherry-picking” from that material. I must say, I am pleased simply to see that some liberals are actually going to those pages. They have been in existence for 77 years now. It is high time that liberals read them. I’ve begged them to read that disturbing passage, and, alas, some of them are — though they’re usually motivated, it seems, to criticize me rather than Sanger. To avoid further accusations of cherry-picking this material, I’m herein reprinting the entire Sanger passage for readers to dissect themselves:
Always to me any aroused group was a good group, and therefore I accepted an invitation to talk to the women’s branch of the Ku Klux Klan at Silver Lake, New Jersey, one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing.
My letter of instruction told me what train to take, to walk from the station two blocks straight ahead, then two to the left. I would see a sedan parked in front of a restaurant. If I wished I could have ten minutes for a cup of coffee or bite to eat, because no supper would be served later.
I obeyed orders implicitly, walked the blocks, saw the car, found the restaurant, went in and ordered some cocoa, stayed my allotted ten minutes, then approached the car hesitatingly and spoke to the driver. I received no reply. She might have been totally deaf as far as I was concerned. Mustering up my courage, I climbed in the back and settled back. Without a turn of the head, a smile, or a word to let me know I was right, she stepped on the self-starter. For fifteen minutes we wound around the streets. It must have been towards six in the afternoon. We took this lonely lane and that through the woods, and an hour later pulled up in a vacant space near a body of water beside a large, unpainted, barnish building.
My driver got out, talked with several other women, then said to me severely, “Wait here. We will come for you.” She disappeared. More cars buzzed up the dusty road into the parking place. Occasionally men dropped wives who walked hurriedly and silently within. This went on mystically until night closed down and I was alone in the dark. A few gleams came through chinks in the window curtains. Even though it was May, I grew chillier and chillier.
After three hours I was summoned at last and entered a bright corridor filled with wraps. As someone came out of the hall I saw through the door dim figures parading with banners and illuminated crosses. I waited another twenty minutes. It was warmer and I did not mind so much. Eventually the lights were switched on, the audience seated itself, and I was escorted to the platform, was introduced, and began to speak.
Never before had I looked into a sea of faces like these. I was sure that if I uttered one word, such as abortion, outside the usual vocabulary of these women they would go off into hysteria. And so my address that night had to be in the most elementary terms, as though I were trying to make children understand.
In the end, through simple illustrations I believed I had accomplished my purpose. A dozen invitations to speak to similar groups were proffered. The conversation went on and on, and when we were finally through it was too late to return to New York. Under a curfew law everything in Silver Lake shut at nine o’clock. I could not even send a telegram to let my family know whether I had been thrown in the river or was being held incommunicado. It was nearly one before I reached Trenton, and I spent the night in a hotel.
Those who have accused me of cherry-picking criticize me for not underscoring statements from Sanger like “hysteria,” “aroused,” and “weirdest.” Actually, I have noted those words when writing about this, and those words (I believe) actually further make the case against Sanger. They demonstrate that she knew that this was an extreme group. She clearly is intimidated somewhat. In fact, note Sanger’s comment about letting her family know that she hadn’t been thrown into the river. This suggests she understood that this was a rather violent group, right? What gave her that hint? The illuminated crosses? The KKK’s history of lynching black people?
Most notably, there are no regrets here articulated by Sanger. And there’s also no indication of what she said that so thrilled the KKK sisters that they proffered a dozen invitations to her to speak again. If what she said prompted such an enthusiastic reaction, we ought to be able to safely assume it was consistent with their values. Moreover, all of this is, flatly, indefensible. No, not “any aroused group” is a “good group.” Could you imagine a prominent conservative speaking to the KKK and then telling the New York Times, “Hey, to me, any aroused group is a good group, and so I accepted an invitation to speak to the Klan.” Would even one liberal in America accept that?
Aside from the KKK speech, another item is often cited by Sanger critics as evidence of her alleged racism. It’s another troubling Sangerism that her admirers on the left feel compelled to defend. In a December 10, 1939 letter to Dr. Clarence Gamble of the Eugenics Society, in the context of discussing the Negro Project, which she developed in concert with white birth-control reformers, Sanger wrote: “We do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out the idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”
What does the disturbing statement mean? It has been typically interpreted in two opposing ways: 1) Sanger admirers argue that she was saying “We do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population” because, in fact, she did not want to exterminate the Negro population; and 2) Sanger detractors argue that she wanted to keep quiet her (alleged) desire to (indeed) exterminate the “Negro population.”
Okay, so which is it? The letter doesn’t say. But as for those with a negative interpretation — including Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece Alveda King, the website BlackGenocide.org, the group of black pastors who currently want Sanger’s bust removed from the Smithsonian, and numerous other African-Americans that I could list at length — it’s rather easy to understand their sensitivity to a critical interpretation.
This we can say with absolute certainty: Margaret Sanger spoke to a women’s organization affiliated with the KKK and she started the Negro Project to bring birth-control information and clinics to impoverished southern African-Americans. Moreover, the Planned Parenthood founder unequivocally preached a creed of “race improvement,” which meant refining the gene pool and controlling and limiting the reproduction of human beings whom she thought weakened the human race. She clearly saw “Negroes” as among those members of the human race whose reproduction she wanted to control. And there is no doubt that the KKK, being absolute racists, would have lauded that.
Was Sanger plotting to eliminate all blacks? Of course not. But she was plotting to control the reproduction of blacks and of the human race generally. She was a racial eugenicist. Was she a racist-eugenicist? Be careful. Really, even Margaret Sanger’s abortion views are not entirely clear. That is something that I’ve also written about many times for years.
What else can be said for certain about Sanger and race? If the person we’re describing here was a prominent conservative rather than a progressive icon, this would be grounds for liberals to completely discredit and outright destroy that conservative. Liberals should reconsider their views of Sanger and what she has wrought.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is Takedown. His other books include 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative, The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.