Birth Control and the Black Community in the 1960s: Genocide or Power Politics?

By Caron, Simone M. | Journal of Social History, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Birth Control and the Black Community in the 1960s: Genocide or Power Politics?


Caron, Simone M., Journal of Social History


Birth control in the 1960s became a hotly debated focal point in the public discourse on sexuality. Although much of the dialogue centered around Catholic opposition to so-called state sponsored immorality, a new dimension to the controversy emerged when some black spokespersons accused birth control advocates of promoting nothing less than "black genocide." Government funding of contraception by the mid 1960s brought the debate to a new height. A strange alliance developed between Black Power advocates and cultural conservatives represented by the Roman Catholic Church. Simultaneously, a rift occurred between male genocide theorists and black women and their supporters. The case of Pittsburgh mirrors these national developments. Two black men in Pittsburgh, Dr. Charles Greenlee, a national spokesman for the genocide theory, and William "Bouie" Haden, a militant leader of the United Movement for Progress, allied with Fr. Charles Owen Rice, a white Catholic priest at Holy Rosemary parish, to lead an anti-birth control campaign between 1966 and 1969. Their combined efforts led Pittsburgh to reject federal funds for birth control clinics, making it the only major city to turn down such resources for this purpose. The ensuing battle revealed a significant polarization between Black Power males interested in political power and black women concerned with the welfare of themselves and their children. The organized protest of black women overpowered genocide theorists and forced the city to reverse its position and accept federal funds for clinics in depressed neighborhoods. While suspicion among black power males of white attempts to control black sexuality may have been warranted, black women were convinced they could use birth control to suit their own purpose. They argued that the decision regarding if and when to have children must be left to individual women, not men seeking an issue from which to launch a political battle.

Certain segments of the black community mistrusted the underlying intention of both private and government efforts with respect to contraception. Some blacks in particular became skeptical of the increasing push for contraceptive dispersal in poor urban neighborhoods, accusing contraceptive proponents of promoting nothing less than "black genocide." Although the black community had generally supported birth control since the 1930s, some members rejected it as a white plot to decimate the black race. This controversy continued in a relatively low-key manner through the 1940s and 1950s.(1) By the 1960s, however, fears of genocide heightened as publicly-funded clinics appeared in areas dominated by "poor and prolific black families."(2)

Much of this fear of genocide was rooted in the centuries of abuse by whites of blacks. Black sexuality had been defiled since the 1600s. The prevalence of rape, castration, and slave breeding laid a foundation for the distrust of any program dealing with black sexuality. Although most blacks, especially black women, rejected the notion of birth control as genocide, black suspicions were not without basis.

Several events in the late 1960s heightened suspicions of genocide. The Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally circulated black newspaper, reported that "a long series of incidents which are covertly building up a phobia among Negroes about racial genocide attempt" took place in 1967 and 1968. In Sacramento, a white millionaire was convicted in 1967 for plotting to put poison in the second of two batches of below-cost gelatin to be sent only to stores in black neighborhoods. He also plotted to pump cyanide through the air conditioning system or into water at institutions attended by blacks. In New York, Bernard Goldman, director of the bureau of x-ray in the state health department, found that a "significant portion" of x-ray technicians exposed blacks to larger doses of radiation than whites, claiming that technicians believed a larger dose was necessary to penetrate black skin.

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