Race and Margaret Sanger
Paul Kengor
by

Anytime 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 very upset. They accuse me of distortion, disinformation, dishonesty. Really, my crime is raising the subject at all. Many liberals cannot—they cannot—find it within themselves to condemn this sordid moment. One writer in the Huffington Post, who was highly unimpressed with me (hey, it’s not the first time), went so far as to assert that the KKK “was almost a mainstream group then, if still clandestine.”

Well, even if so, it was a rather hideous group nonetheless. This unending desire by the left to defend utterly everything about Planned Parenthood and its founder, no matter how ugly, really is quite astonishing.

This same writer who didn’t like my column went to pages 366-67 of Sanger’s 1938 autobiography—as I specifically recommended doing—and accused me of “cherry-picking” from that material. I must say, I am thrilled to see that some liberals are actually going to those pages. Those pages 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 often motivated, it seems, to criticize me rather than Sanger.

To avoid the accusation of cherry-picking this material, I’m here reprinting the entire Sanger passage for readers to dissect themselves. Here it is: 

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 come 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 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.

All of this is, flatly, indefensible. No, not “any aroused group” is a “good group.” That’s a poor standard. 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?

Note the details in the passage: Sanger, after a long and circuitous and surreptitious journey down a “lonely lane” deep into the woods—obeying her “severe” driver implicitly—finally arrived at a barnish-looking building (probably a literal barn, appropriately). Having eaten nothing but a cup of cocoa, she waited and waited and waited, left alone, for three hours, feeling “chillier and chillier.” She then saw the illuminated crosses, the dim figures parading around, waited another 20 minutes still—though, by then, “did not mind so much.” After finally speaking, and then speaking long, she was clearly a hit. The women of the KKK obviously really liked what she had to say, because they came to the podium with no less than 12 additional speaking offers. Any public speaker will tell you that that’s highly unusual. She was a big hit, no question.

And yet, the latest criticism I’m hearing from Sanger supporters is that I cherry-picked lines from this passage, ignoring statements from Sanger like “hysteria,” “aroused,” and “weirdest.” To the contrary, those words actually further make the case against Sanger. They demonstrate that she knew that this was an extreme group. Of course she did. She clearly was intimidated somewhat. In fact, note Sanger’s comment about letting her family know that she hadn’t been thrown into the river. This obviously suggests she understood that this was a violent group. What gave her that hint? The illuminated crosses? The KKK’s history of lynching black people?

Most notably, there are no regrets articulated by Sanger in this passage. And there was also (wisely) 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 certain unpleasant values of these women.

But let’s take this deeper. Discussing this alarming Sanger moment hits a raw nerve with liberals because it raises the logical question of whether the Planned Parenthood founder—an icon to the left—was a racist. What about that?

I’m not going to resolve that here, but a few things are worth briefly addressing regarding that allegation.

Aside from the KKK speech, another controversial item is often cited by Sanger critics as evidence of alleged racism. In a December 10, 1939 letter to Dr. Clarence Gamble of the Eugenics Society, Sanger, in the context of discussing the Negro Project, which she developed in concert with white “birth-control reformers,” wrote this: “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 this jarring 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 (a copy of which I have as a PDF) 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 the bust of Margaret Sanger removed from the Smithsonian, and numerous other African-Americans that I could list at length—it’s easy to understand their sensitivity. Given Sanger’s other statements, her background, her writings, her associations, and, yes, her KKK speech, we can certainly discern why black Americans might be inclined to a critical interpretation. Moreover, black Americans are rightly outraged that Sanger’s organization, Planned Parenthood, disproportionately aborts a far larger percentage of unborn African-American babies. This is hardly mere paranoia on their part.

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, ostensibly to bring birth-control information and clinics to impoverished southern African-Americans—which would, of course, limit their reproduction. Generally speaking, the Planned Parenthood founder unequivocally preached a creed of “race improvement,” which meant refining the gene pool and controlling 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 racists, would have lauded that.

Was Margaret Sanger plotting to eliminate all blacks? Of course, not. Was she interested in controlling only black births? No, she was not. But she was plotting to control the reproduction of blacks and of the human race generally—the entire race. She wrote of “race improvement,” of “creating a race of thoroughbreds.” 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.

And finally, what else can be said about Sanger and race, and specifically her KKK speech, which was the focus of my article? This must be said: 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. No question. Liberals would never be so tolerant and flexible. And they know it.

Paul Kengor
Paul Kengor
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Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa., and senior academic fellow at the Center for Vision & Values. Dr. Kengor is author of over a dozen books, including A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism, and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.
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