The Negro Project

Margaret Sanger did not write racist essays or give racist speeches. (She appeared before a local Ku Klux Klan group, but she describes the experience in her biography as akin to visiting aliens.) Racist comments sometimes appeared in the Birth Control Review while it was under Sanger’s editorship, but they were in articles not written by her.

The most damning piece of evidence against Sanger in the matter of racism is a letter in which she discusses the “Negro Project.” In my judgment, however, the evidence there is ambiguous at best.

The Negro Project was initiated in 1939 by Sanger’s Birth Control Federation of America, an early form of Planned Parenthood. The purpose was to promote contraception use among the black population of the South, using black ministers.

A letter from Sanger to Clarence Gamble in 1939 says: 

“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.” (Margaret Sanger to Clarence Gamble, October 19, 1939, Sanger Smith Collection)

What does this passage mean? Does it reveal a sinister intent to exterminate the black population? Or does it inartfully express a misconception that blacks might have about the project and how to address that misconception? Given the lack of further evidence, it is not clear how to interpret the letter.

This is the only really questionable statement about blacks in Sanger’s writings; elsewhere she claims to oppose “race prejudice.” Given that Sanger did not hide her feelings about anything, I think that probably this one passage is not enough evidence to convict her of racism. If she were a racist, it would have come out in other ways.

But was she a eugenic, elitist bigot? Unfortunately for Sanger fans, there is no question that she was.