In 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower emphatically told the nation that the American government would not and should not support birth control, stating, "That's not our business." With the advent of the Pill that position changed sooner than anyone ever expected. Just five years later, President Lyndon Johnson established federal funding of birth control for the poor. Although many social welfare advocates applauded the move, not everyone welcomed the development. Within the African American community, federal funding sparked a serious controversy over birth control, especially the Pill.
Well Grounded Fears
In the 1960s, many African Americans around the country deeply distrusted the motivations behind government funded birth control clinics, fearing it was an attempt to limit black population growth and stunt black political power. Their fears were well grounded in past experiences. In the South, black fertility had a long history of being controlled by whites. Under slavery, African American women were encouraged to have children to increase a plantation owner's wealth. After the Civil War, when African Americans were no longer valuable property, the view among white supremacists abruptly shifted. It became desirable to decrease the African American population in the South. Sterilization abuse of African American women by the white medical establishment reached its height in the 1950s and 1960s. Women who went into the hospital to deliver children often came out unable to have more.
A Conspiracy to Hold Back Blacks?
As African Americans grew more aware of their history in the 1960s, they became increasingly suspicious of government-sponsored birth control and the Pill. For many it seemed plausible that birth control was part of a larger plan to keep the black population down and limit black political power.
In a cover story for Ebony magazine, popular comedian and activist Dick Gregory spoke for many when he wrote: "First, the white man tells me to sit at the back of the bus. Now it looks like the white man wants me to sleep under the bed. Back in the days of slavery, black folks couldn't grow kids fast enough for white folks to harvest. Now that we've got a little taste of power, white folks want to call a moratorium on having children."
In some communities, rumors spread that there was two kinds of Pills -- one for white women, that temporarily prevented ovulation, and one for black women that caused sterilization. The African American newspaper Thrust struck a chord when it asked in an editorial, "Why couldn't blacks get basic health care like a free aspirin for a headache, but when you are a black woman old enough to look sexy you can get a truck load of birth control pills for free?"
Political Motivations to Oppose the Pill
A significant faction within the black power movement believed that population growth was key to increasing black political strength. At the 1967 Black Power Conference in Newark, New Jersey, attendees passed an anti-birth control resolution declaring birth control to be the equivalent of black genocide.
In the summer of 1969, the situation reached a boiling point, moving beyond inflammatory words to actual threats of violence against a Pittsburgh Planned Parenthood office in the African American neighborhood of Homewood-Brushton. A small, vocal group of men in the black community vehemently opposed the clinic and the dispensing of birth control, especially the Pill. Determined to take action, they threatened the clinic with firebombs and riots. In a panic, the clinic shut down.
Women's Personal Needs
African American women were caught in a bind. Although they shared some of the same suspicions and resentment about the mostly white-run clinics, in the end their need to control their fertility prevailed over racial politics. Black liberation activist Tone Cade spoke for many women when she wrote, "I've been made aware of the national call to Sisters to abandon birth control... to picket family planning centers... to raise revolutionaries.... What plans do you have for the care of me and my child?"
In Pittsburgh, the epicenter of the controversy, approximately 200 women arrived together at a town council meeting to save their clinic, and the Planned Parenthood office was reopened. In the decades that have followed, African American women have continued to choose the Pill based on personal, not political, needs.