Earl Conrad, "On U.S. Birth and Bias Control," 22 Sept 1945.
Published interview. Source: Chicago Defender, Sep 22, 1945, p. 11 .
Margaret Sanger, the elderly battle-axe of planned parenthood--better known as birth control--has sound and emancipated views of the Negro-white situation.
I interviewed the 58-year-old, gray-haired, lively woman, with the lined face and eager interest in things, in the offices of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America here.
In recent years Miss Sanger has let down from the great energies she gave to her idea in an earlier period. She estimates that she has made about 67,000 speeches for birth control--addresses all over America, in Europe and the Orient. It was nothing to speak five or ten times a day.
Her home is in Tucson, Ariz., now, where she is more or less in retirement, and where she awaits the return from the armed service of her two doctor sons. But she was in New York long enough to see Pearl Buck, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and other women who have supported her in her fight for planned home life, and I managed to get an hour with her.
“Say, Miss Sanger,” I asked “what was the magazine that once referred to you as a fanatic? Was it the Nation or the New Republic?”
“I am afraid it was every magazine in the country,” she replied with a smile.
Seated opposite me, in a small office of the federation, Miss Sanger seemed like the most unprepossessing of individuals. She wore a plain, blue cotton dress, a simple blue hat, and a wrist watch that she looked at once or twice.
"How many times did you go to jail, Mrs. Sanger?"
“Eight times,” she answered “Never for long. It always gave me a much-needed rest, however.”
Like Susan Anthony who fought for woman suffrage, Harriet Tubman who battled for the abolition of chattel slavery, and Carrie Nation who carried the torch for prohibition, Miss Sanger belongs to a small and unique line of American women pioneers.
When, before World War I, Miss Sanger launched her famous idea of curtailing the size of families in order to safeguard mothers and children against poverty, disease, crime and miserable home life, she was attacked by “respectable” society. She was insulted, stoned, jailed--but she went on with her work until her idea is a widely-accepted institution in America and in other parts of the world.
Miss Sanger views the problems of the American Negro as part of a world problem.
“They are not separate problems,” she says. “It is not just a Negro problem. 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 likened the attitude of most of the white North toward the Negro to that of the British attitude toward the Indian peoples. “I like to think of it that way; as a concept of superiority over others.”
“I’ve traveled in India and China,” she 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 China, the Chinese could not go on ‘our’ property. A Chinese doctor was not allowed to see me, couldn’t come into the American area. 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.”
I asked Miss Sanger how she had encountered the Negro question in her own special sphere.
“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.”
“Have you seen any change in the Negro-white situation generally since the times of your pioneer days?” I wanted to know.
“I think things have changed for the better. There is a changed attitude among employers, I believe.”
“The Negro has made great progress. Harlem is an example. When we started out in Harlem with birth control, we couldn’t get a colored physician. Now there is much less of a problem in reaching Harlem physicians with planned parenthood. I think this shows how things have advanced.
“Here is another example of how attitudes have changed. 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.
“It is our experience, as it was our aim, that as a result of child-spacing and adequate care of mothers, death rates would be reduced. It is now a fact that as a result of birth control, the survival rate among mothers and children is higher. There is less sufferings for all groups.”
Miss Sanger based her views of the general situation on her own broad experience and travel. She spoke of Tucson, Ariz.
“It is not so bad there,” she said. “There is no Jim Crow in the theatres, and the restaurants serve Negroes equally with whites. But there is some overflow of southern idea into the state and supremacist feeling can be found there.”
I asked her to recall some experience from her own travel in the South.
“Yes,” she said, “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.
“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.”
I thought that she had spoken well enough and broadly enough on the general situation and then asked her about planned parenthood--for Miss Sanger has more to give the Negro than ideas; she has the gift of her own famous plan.
“What can the Negro group do in connection with planned parenthood?” I asked.
“In the first place, the Negro leaders should understand it. It is a basic principle for a sound healthy race. Leaders should have the courage in their respective communities to stand for the idea. 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.
“Greater understanding and practice of planned parenthood, through the use of contraceptive methods prescribed by doctors and clinics, will mean that there will be more strong and healthy children and fewer defective and handicapped babies unable to find a useful or happy place in life.
“Planned parenthood does not mean using contraceptives not to have babies. It means using medically prescribed methods so that each member of the family will come into life in good health and wanted by its parents.
“Years ago the first emphasis of birth control was on family limitation and it still is in advising those parents to whom another child might mean death of the mother or added misery. Since then, however, planned parenthood has shifted its emphasis to child-spacing--allowing each mother needed rest and recuperation between each birth.
“More recently planned parenthood has come to include treatment of infertility for childless couples who want children but have been unable to have them.”
Miss Sanger said that planned parenthood is not “quack medicine,” but a widely-approved measure. “Most doctors now believe in it and it has been approved by both the American Medical Association and the National Medical Association,” she pointed out.
In conclusion she said: “The extension of planned parenthood to reach millions of colored families now handicapped for lack of this knowledge is not a panacea for all the ills of the race.
“But planned parenthood, together with x-rays for tuberculosis, penicillin for other maladies, venereal disease control and other health measures can help the Negro family to attain a position of greater strength and security in America.
“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.”
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project