The Pro-Life Coalition of East Tennessee has chosen to enlist a powerful taboo in its quest to close a Planned Parenthood clinic. Fears of white control over the black population run deep, according to Cynthia Fleming, professor of Africana Studies and History at the University of Tennessee. Going back to slavery, black women who had produced children were known as “breeders” and fetched higher prices. “Even then, black women’s reproductive rights were hijacked,” Fleming says.
With the end of slavery and the advent of sharecropping, Fleming says having many children was a boon to poor black families. But with urbanization, the decimation of the cotton crop by the Boll weevil, and the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Cincinnati, children no longer added to productivity but became an economic liability.
“Once you had that happen, then you begin to get these notions that it was somehow desirable to experiment with ways to keep black women from having children,” explains Fleming, noting this became especially true with the expansion of the welfare state in the 1930s and continuing on in the 1960s with the War on Poverty. “As it became an obligation of American society to care for indigent people, then the notion that there ought to be a way to prevent poor women, and particularly African-American women, from having children became more and more widespread.” Fleming recalls that in many states, including nearby North Carolina, poor black women were unknowingly sterilized. The anti-abortion documentary Maafa 21, which is being distributed locally by ProCET, spends some time with Elaine Riddick, who was sterilized during this period. In doing so, it attempts to connect the forced sterilization campaigns to Planned Parenthood and a larger conspiracy to control black reproductive rights.
Loretta Ross is the national director of Sister Song, an organization dedicated to protecting reproductive rights for minorities. “The black community has always felt, particularly since the end of slavery, that the way to improve the condition of the race would be to control and plan our families,” Ross says. “You know, to really work on family size. And so that’s what led all the black leaders of the 1920s and ’30s to even work with Margaret Sanger. The first clinic placed in an African-American neighborhood was in Harlem, at the behest of the Harlem Women’s Club movement. It was black women who went there and said, ‘We need these services.’”
Outside of reproductive issues, there are deep-seated fears in the black community of the white medical establishment. The Tuskegee Study, carried out from 1932 to 1972, was a government program that allowed black men infected with syphilis to go untreated to see what the effects would be, without informing them of the nature of the program. (On the website klannedparenthood.com, which is owned by the company that produced Maafa 21, there’s a button labeled “Tuskegee Study.” When you click it, text appears promising content is “Coming Soon!”)
Today, many in the black community believe HIV, which has a high infection rate among African-Americans, was created by the U.S. government in an attempt to limit the black population. At least one prominent supporter of this theory is Jeremiah Wright, once pastor and adviser to President Barack Obama.
Lisa Morris, spokeswoman for the Pro-Life Coalition of East Tennessee, touched on these fears in a speech given to True Vine Baptist Church earlier this year. “African-Americans make up 12 percent of the total U.S. population, but they account for 35 percent of the abortions in America,” Morris said. “Are they being targeted? Isn’t that genocide? African-Americans are the only minority in America that is on the decline in population. If the current trend continues, by 2038 the African-American vote will be insignificant.”
Yet according to Esther Katz, professor of history at New York University, attempting to connect Sanger to this fear ignores her relationship with the black community, noting her support from civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, one of the first recipients of the Margaret Sanger award in 1966. “So she always had a very good and strong record among the leadership. Within the black community, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of hostility to her during the ’50s. That seemed to come when the right-to-life people began trying to tar Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights by tarring Sanger.”
Ross agrees. “Certainly there is reason in the black community to have distrust of the medical community, looking at the Tuskegee experiment and all of that,” Ross says. “But then to take that kernel of truth and then create out of whole cloth this conspiracy that Planned Parenthood targets the African-American community for elimination is just ridiculous.”