The right loves to try to co-opt Martin Luther King Jr. and portray Planned Parenthood as racist. But an inconvenient fact is that MLK and Planned Parenthood had an excellent relationship. He would, no doubt, be horrified by the modern day attacks on contraception.
Question: We have seven children and another one is on the way. Our four-room apartment is bursting at the seams and living space in Harlem is at a premium. I have suggested to my husband that we practice birth control, but he says that when God thinks we have enough children, He will put a stop to it. I've tried to reason with him, but he says that birth control is sinful. Is he right?
King responded by writing,
I do not think it is correct to argue that birth control is sinful. It is a serious mistake to suppose that it is a religious act to allow nature to have its way in the sex life. The truth is that the natural order is given us, not as an absolute finality, but as something to be guided and controlled. In the case of birth control the real question at issue is that between rational control and resort to chance. Another thing that must be said is that changes in social and economic conditions make smaller families desirable, if not necessary. As you suggest, the limited quarters available in our large cities and the high cost of living preclude such large families as were common a century or so ago. A final consideration is that women must be considered as more than "breeding machines." It is true that the primary obligation of the woman is that of motherhood, but an intelligent mother wants it to be a responsible motherhood-a motherhood to which she has given her consent, not a motherhood due to impulse and to chance. And this means birth control in some form. All of these factors, seem to me, to make birth control rationally and morally justifiable.
In 1960, King agreed to be on a committee for a Planned Parenthood study on contraception, explaining in a letter, "I have always been deeply interested in and sympathetic with the total work of the Planned Parenthood Federation."
In a letter thanking a donor for contributing to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) King wrote:
It is true that illegitimate birth rates are higher among Negroes than Whites as is born out by recent surveys and studies. Consequently, I have often, both publically and privately advocated the wider use of birth control methods in order to reduce the illegitimacy rates and the consequences. It is my hope that federal and state governments will begin to appropriate large sums to educate people to the need for such devices.
In 1966, when the Planned Parenthood Federation of America inaugurated the PPFA Margaret Sanger Award, its first awardee was Martin Luther King. Coretta Scott King accepted the award for her husband, delivering the speech he'd written for the occasion. Titled "Family Planning - A Special and Urgent Concern," it lamented the lack of investment in family planning:
Recently, the press has been filled with reports of sightings of flying saucers. While we need not give credence to these stories, they allow our imagination to speculate on how visitors from outer space would judge us. I am afraid they would be stupefied at our conduct. They would observe that for death planning we spend billions to create engines and strategies for war. They would also observe that we spend millions to prevent death by disease and other causes. Finally they would observe that we spend paltry sums for population planning, even though its spontaneous growth is an urgent threat to life on our planet. Our visitors from outer space could be forgiven if they reported home that our planet is inhabited by a race of insane men whose future is bleak and uncertain.
There is no human circumstance more tragic than the persisting existence of a harmful condition for which a remedy is readily available. Family planning, to relate population to world resources, is possible, practical and necessary. Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.
What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victims....
King compared the movement for civil rights to the movement for reproductive rights:
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.
King explored how family planning was especially important for giving black people stability:
For the Negro, therefore, intelligent guides of family planning are a profoundly important ingredient in his quest for security and a decent life. There are mountainous obstacles still separating Negroes from a normal existence. Yet one element in stabilizing his life would be an understanding of and easy access to the means to develop a family related in size to his community environment and to the income potential he can command.
This is not to suggest that the Negro will solve all his problems through Planned Parenthood. His problems are far more complex, encompassing economic security, education, freedom from discrimination, decent housing and access to culture. Yet if family planning is sensible it can facilitate or at least not be an obstacle to the solution of the many profound problems that plague him.
King was careful to point out that there was nothing inherently black about unplanned pregnancies and linked the phenomenon to questions of economics and education:
The Negro constitutes half the poor of the nation. Like all poor, Negro and white, they have many unwanted children. This is a cruel evil they urgently need to control. There is scarcely anything more tragic in human life than a child who is not wanted. That which should be a blessing becomes a curse for parent and child. There is nothing inherent in the Negro mentality which creates this condition. Their poverty causes it. When Negroes have been able to ascend economically, statistics reveal they plan their families with even greater care than whites. Negroes of higher economic and educational status actually have fewer children than white families in the same circumstances.
King argued that the history of slavery and bodily ownership made the issue of reproductive freedom and self control especially important for the black community:
Negroes were once bred by slave owners to be sold as merchandise. They do not welcome any solution which involves population breeding as a weapon. They are instinctively sympathetic to all who offer methods that will improve their lives and offer them fair opportunity to develop and advance as all other people in our society.
For these reasons we are natural allies of those who seek to inject any form of planning in our society that enriches life and guarantees the right to exist in freedom and dignity.
For these constructive movements we are prepared to give our energies and consistent support; because in the need for family planning, Negro and white have a common bond; and together we can and should unite our strength for the wise preservation, not of races in general, but of the one race we all constitute - the human race.
It is not clear what Martin Luther King would have to say about abortion, though given that King was so progressive and ahead of his time, I find it hard to believe that he would oppose a woman's legal right to choose even if he opposed abortions on a personal spiritual level. The new Pew poll found that 65% of black Protestants support keeping Roe v Wade while 29% of black Protestants want to overturn the ruling. I highly doubt that Dr. King would be among that 29%. But what we do know beyond any doubt is that Martin Luther King not only saw family planning and birth control as justifiable, but as an integral part of the Civil Rights movement.