Heroes But Not Saints: Why We Shouldn't 'Cancel' Flawed Progressive Icons
In a recent op-ed column for the New York Times, Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood, wrote that "we're done making excuses for our founder," Margaret Sanger. Planned Parenthood began that reckoning last year when it removed Sanger's name from one of its New York City clinics. Now it is taking further steps.
"We have defended Sanger as a protector of bodily autonomy and self-determination, while excusing her association with white supremacist groups and eugenics as an unfortunate 'product of her time,'" Johnson wrote.
For decades, foes of birth control and abortion have attacked Sanger (1879-1966) as a racist.
In 2011, for example, Herman Cain, the late Republican presidential candidate and African American businessman, claimed in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation that "when Margaret Sanger—check my history—started Planned Parenthood, the objective was to put these centers in primarily black communities so they could help kill black babies before they came into the world. It's planned genocide." Later that year, in an interview on Face the Nation, Cain insisted that "75 percent of [Planned Parenthood's clinics] were built in the black community."
In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute, only about 110 of Planned Parenthood's 800 clinics are in areas where African Americans make up over 25 percent of the overall population. Planned Parenthood establishes clinics based on where medical needs—including a shortage of primary care providers and a high poverty rate—are the greatest. One fact that Cain (who died of COVID last year) and others have conveniently ignored is that none of Sanger's clinics, or Planned Parenthood clinics, performed abortions before Roe v. Wade made them legal in 1973.
In 2015, 25 House Republicans campaigned to have a bust of the pioneering family planning advocate removed from the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas declared that Sanger didn't belong there because of her "inhumane life's work," and because she "advocated for the extermination of African Americans."
These lies have been repeated so often that many people, including African Americans, now believe them.
There is no doubt that the Black community, and Black women, have for many years been mistreated by the nation's health care system. It is thus understandable that many Black Americans distrust many health care providers. For example, a recent survey by Kaiser Family Foundation found that Black Americans were more skeptical of the COVID vaccine than other groups.
Planned Parenthood is one of the nation's largest providers of health services – not only family planning and abortion, which constitutes a small part of its work – to low-income women and women of color. Its recent efforts to distance itself from Sanger are likely motivated in large part by its admirable effort to reach out to more African American women in need of first-rate health care.
But in doing so, Planned Parenthood need not reinforce the misconceptions about Sanger that the pro-life movement and right-wingers in general have been perpetuating for decades.
These misleading views about Sanger hinge on two aspects of her life that have generated considerable controversy and debate.
At one point in her life, Sanger flirted with the now-discredited eugenics movement, which sought to improve the overall health and fitness of humankind through selective breeding and which enjoyed widespread support from mainstream doctors, scientists and the general public – including many liberals and radicals -- in the early 1900s. Some leaders of the eugenics movement were vicious racists who viewed eugenics as a means to create a "superior" white human race, reflected in Paul Popenoe's widely-read and deeply-racist 1918 book, Applied Eugenics. Sanger was not among them, but her embrace of some aspects of eugenics understandably damaged her reputation.
In Sanger's day, many scientists believed that – in the words of that period -- "feeble minded" and "mentally unfit" people were more likely to become criminals and rapists. Reflecting those views, Sanger argued that eugenics might help reduce the incidence of babies born with physical or mental handicaps. She wrote: "If by 'unfit' is meant the physical or mental defects of a human being, that is an admirable gesture, but if 'unfit' refers to races or religions, then that is another matter which I frankly deplore." Sanger herself later repudiated her views about sterilization of the so-called "feeble-minded." Sanger's statement demonstrates that she did not subscribe to the use of eugenics in racist ways.
As a young nurse in New York City, Sanger met poor women, mostly immigrants, who had had several children and were desperate to avoid future pregnancies. She opened the nation's first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916, went to jail to defend women's right to contraception, and founded the organization that later became Planned Parenthood. She believed that access to family planning would liberate many women from poverty and suffering.
In 1919, after she had opened her first clinics in New York, William Oscar Saunders, editor of the Elizabeth City Independent, invited Sanger to give a talk in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, where African Americans comprised about 37 percent of the population. Saunders was known as an outspoken opponent of racism and anti-Semitism and was an advocate for birth control.
In November of that year, she spoke on "Woman's Place in the 20th Century" to an audience of about 800 people in Elizabeth City, the first public meeting about birth control in the South. Given the South's fierce Jim Crow laws, it is likely that the audience was mostly or all white. Her talk was so well-received that other groups in the city asked Sanger to stay an extra few days and give additional lectures. She gave one impromptu talk to elderly women concerned about their daughters' and granddaughters' unwanted pregnancies. She also spoke at an African American church, at a Black high school, and to a group of Black women about birth control. Sanger's talks catalyzed an effort by the town's residents to establish a birth control clinic for local mill workers.
"Never have I met with more sympathy, more serious attention, more complete understanding than in my addresses to the white and black people of this Southern mill town," Sanger later wrote about that trip. "All in all, these audiences were a striking demonstration of birth control's universal message of freedom and betterment."
In 1930, with the support of the prominent black activist and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, the Urban League, and the Amsterdam News (New York's leading black newspaper), Sanger opened a family planning clinic in Harlem, staffed by a black doctor and black social worker. Then, in 1939, key leaders in the black community encouraged Sanger to expand her efforts to the rural South, where most African Americans lived. Thus began the "Negro Project," with Du Bois, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of Harlem's powerful Abyssinian Baptist Church, anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and other black leaders lending support.
Like her African-American supporters, Sanger viewed birth control as a way to empower black women, not as a means to reduce the black population. Sanger explained that the project was designed to help "a group notoriously underprivileged and handicapped…to get a fair share of the better things in life. To give them the means of helping themselves is perhaps the richest gift of all. We believe birth control knowledge brought to this group, is the most direct, constructive aid that can be given them to improve their immediate situation."
The other aspect of Sanger's life that has raised concern is a one-time talk she gave to the women's auxiliary of a Ku Klux Klan chapter in New Jersey in 1926. In her 1938 autobiography, Sanger wrote that she was willing to talk to virtually anyone to gain support for the birth control movement. "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."
Sanger had no more meetings with any Klan-affiliated groups and may have had second thoughts about the wisdom of giving that talk in New Jersey. But that incident did not stop Black leaders from inviting her to establish the Harlem clinic four years later or to undertake the subsequent Negro Project in the South. They trusted Sanger as an ally to the cause of Black freedom, despite what some might consider her occasional lapses in judgement. Planned Parenthood's current efforts to forge stronger alliances with Black women is actually an extension – not a repudiation – of Sanger's work.
If Planned Parenthood leaders think that distancing the organization from Sanger will immunize it from attacks from Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, or other right-wing opponents of abortion who wrongly claim that Sanger and Planned Parenthood were engaged in "black genocide," they are wrong. As Katha Pollitt wrote in her Nation column last year, removing Sanger's name from its flagship clinic in Manhattan "only helps abortion opponents" and "[buys] into anti-choice propaganda." Pollitt, a well-known feminist, went even further: "Margaret Sanger did more good for American women than any other individual in the entire 20th century."
But there's a larger issue involved not only in Planned Parenthood's effort to lower Sanger's profile but also in wider efforts to take stock of racism among many progressive leaders and movements over the past century or more.
Where should we draw the line with regard to our progressive icons who said or did things in their day that we now find unacceptable?
In 1918, Eleanor Roosevelt described Harvard Law professor Felix Frankfurter, then serving as an advisor to President Wilson, as "an interesting little man but very Jew." That same year, after attending a party for Bernard Baruch when her husband Franklin was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, she wrote to her mother-in-law, "I'd rather be hung than seen at" the party, since it would be "mostly Jews." She also reported that, "The Jew party was appalling." By the 1930s, however, she became a crusader for Jewish causes, a foe of anti-Semitism and racism, and a powerful (though unsuccessful) advocate for getting her husband, by then the president, to do more to save Jews from the Nazi holocaust. She was also a powerful ally of the civil rights and feminist movements and the leading figure in drafting the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Should we strip Eleanor Roosevelt's name from high schools named for her in Maryland, New York, and California?
Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, is justifiably admired for orchestrating the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that outlawed school segregation and many other path breaking liberal Supreme Court rulings. But as California's Attorney General at the start of World War 2, he played a leading role in rounding up Japanese Americans, putting them in internment camps, and confiscating their property and businesses. Only in retirement did Warren acknowledge that the relocation was a mistake based on hysteria. Should we rename the California State Building in San Francisco, schools in California and Texas, and the fairgrounds in Santa Barbara named for Warren?
Albert Einstein, a socialist, co-chaired the American Crusade to End Lynching, backed the campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys (nine black teenagers who were wrongly framed of the rape of a white woman), gave talks at historically black universities, was a close friend of the Black leftist Paul Robeson even during the Red Scare, and wrote articles in support of civil rights – all unusual activities for a well-known scientist. But historians recently uncovered Einstein's personal travel diary from the 1920s, in which he wrote some racist slurs against the Chinese people. Should we tear down the 12-foot high statue of Einstein at the entrance to the headquarters of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.?
Theodor Geisel's racist depictions of Japanese Americans in his editorial cartoons (under his pen name Dr. Seuss) for the radical newspaper PM during World War II contradicted his lifelong opposition to racism and anti-Semitism, and his effort to teach children to stand up to bullies and tyrants. Should we boycott his books or remove the statue of Geisel on the campus of the University of California-San Diego, or rename the nearby Geisel Library?
Jackie Robinson not only broke baseball's color line in 1947, he was also a civil rights activist during and after his playing career, a frequent presence on picket lines and at marches. But in 1949 — at the height of the Cold War — he allowed Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey to persuade him to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee so that he could publicly criticize Robeson at the height of the Cold War. As expected, Robinson challenged Robeson's patriotism, but he also denounced American racism. The press focused on the former and ignored the latter. In 1960, he endorsed Richard Nixon for president, believing he was a stronger civil rights supporter than John F. Kennedy. Robinson later apologized for both actions. Should Major League Baseball cancel Jackie Robinson Day and should the Dodgers remove the statue of Robinson at the front of Dodger Stadium?
Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women was homophobic and expressed her concern that the involvement of women she called "mannish" or "man-hating" lesbians within the movement would hinder the feminist cause. Should we burn our copies of The Feminine Mystique?
Martin Luther King, Jr. plagiarized parts of his Ph.D. dissertation at Boston University. Should we cancel Martin Luther King Day and rename all the streets and schools named after him? Should Planned Parenthood rescind its Margaret Sanger Award, which it bestowed on King in 1966?
Paul Wellstone, the left-wing Senator from Minnesota, voted in favor of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which outlawed federal recognition of same-sex marriage. He later said he regretted his stance on the issue. Should the St. Paul, Minnesota school board take Paul Wellstone's name off an elementary school dedicated to the late senator and his wife Sheila
During his early days as an activist with the railroad workers union in the late 1800s, Eugene Debs told jokes in black dialect, supported keeping blacks out of jobs in the South, and favored segregation on trains. He also had bigoted views towards Jews, Italians, Chinese. and other immigrant groups, according to historian Nick Salvatore's Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. But Debs' views evolved. As the leader and five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party in the early 1900s, Debs challenged his fellow unionists and Socialists who sought to keep blacks out of their movement. He told them that "white workingmen would be exploited so long as the Negroes were held in an inferior position," according to Ray Ginger, author of another Debs biography, The Bending Cross. Should the Democratic Socialists of America stop giving its annual Eugene Debs Award?
Cesar Chavez, the leader of the United Farm Workers movement, was opposed to employers who used undocumented workers as strike breakers. As a result, he initially opposed illegal immigration and occasionally even reported undocumented workers to immigration authorities so they could be deported. But in step with other Mexican American civil rights groups, he later revised his views and supported amnesty for immigrants who had crossed the border without legal documents. Should California repeal its Cesar Chavez Day as a state holiday?
None of these people is like Klan leader David Duke, anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly, hate-monger Rush Limbaugh, or all-purpose right-winger Ted Cruz -- reactionaries who devoted their lives to promoting oppression and injustice.
Any fair-minded understanding of Margaret Sanger and other progressive activists and thinkers needs to consider the totality of those people's contributions to the struggle for social justice. We shouldn't ignore their offensive views or behavior. But we should also not judge people by their worst moments. We need to recognize that they — like many other reformers and radicals — were human beings who were both trapped by and sought to escape the social and political straitjackets of their times.
If we require our progressive and radical heroes to be saints — if we eliminate leaders from the progressive pantheon because they held some views or engaged in behaviors that were conventional in their day but problematic today — we won't have many people left to admire.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College and author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. His next book, Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America," will be published in 2022.