If you visit the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian, you’ll come across this bust of Margaret Sanger, the birth control activist who founded the group that is now known as Planned Parenthood:
Sanger has always been a lightning rod for controversy. But following the release of the anti-Planned Parenthood videos, a group of African-American pastors associated with Staying True to America’s National Destiny (STAND) sent a letter Friday to the director of the National Portrait Gallery asking for the removal of Sanger from all exhibits:
We are writing to ask that Margaret Sanger’s likeness be removed from all National Portrait Gallery exhibits. Her bust should not be part of the Gallery’s “Struggle for Justice” exhibit, which honors “great achievements…striking down long-standing segregationist practices and discrimination in American society.” Ms. Sanger may have been a lot of things, but a “champion of justice” she definitely was not.
Ironically, Sanger’s bust is featured in the NPG’s “Struggle for Justice” exhibit, alongside two of America’s most celebrated and authentic champions of equal rights — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. If Sanger had her way, MLK and Rosa Parks would not have been born.
Their argument is that Sanger supported eugenics and was a racist — but the evidence is shaky on both. It’s always dangerous to apply modern morality to previous eras, but that’s what you have to do to paint her as a horrible person. There’s a good article here giving more context to her beliefs, but for what it’s worth, Sanger opened up an integrated birth control clinic in the 1930s, a time when even those were segregated. And in 1966, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America gave its inaugural “Margaret Sanger Award” to — wait for it — Martin Luther King, Jr. You can read his full acceptance speech here, but I would excerpt this bit:
There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist — a nonviolent resister. She was willing to accept scorn and abuse until the truth she saw was revealed to the millions. At the turn of the century she went into the slums and set up a birth control clinic, and for this deed she went to jail because she was violating an unjust law. Yet the years have justified her actions. She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions. Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity, and today we honor her courage and vision; for without them there would have been no beginning. Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her. Negroes have no mere academic nor ordinary interest in family planning. They have a special and urgent concern.
I would make one more point: Even if Sanger was a racist, that doesn’t negate her fight to give more women control over their own bodies. Her contribution is an important one in American history.
Was she perfect? Of course not. I’m not suggesting we gloss over any problematic things she said. But there’s also no reason to kick her out of the gallery because of that.
If anything, her thought crimes were nothing compared to the Founding Fathers who actually owned slaves, and no one’s suggesting we eliminate Thomas Jefferson from the Gallery.
You don’t have to love her, but there’s no denying Sanger’s place in American history.
By the way, the Gallery also includes images of Rev. Billy Graham. He should remain in there despite any controversy associated with his name, too.
***Update*** (8/14): The National Portrait Gallery has issued a statement in defense of the exhibit:
“Margaret Sanger is included in the museum’s collection, not in tribute to all her beliefs, many of which are now controversial, but because of her leading role in early efforts to distribute information about birth control and medical information to disadvantaged women, as well as her later roles associated with developing modern methods of contraception and in founding Planned Parenthood of America,” it stated.
(via CNSNews. Thanks to Richard for the link)