In the United States, black genocide refers to the genocide of African Americans both in the past and in the present. The decades of lynchings and long-term racial discrimination were first formally described as genocide by a now defunct organization, the Civil Rights Congress, in a petition to the United Nations in 1951. In the 1960s, Malcolm X accused the US government of engaging in genocide against black people, citing long-term injustice, cruelty, and violence by whites against blacks.
Some accusations of genocide have been described as conspiracy theories. After President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through his War on Poverty legislation including public funding of the Pill for the poor in the mid-1960s, family planning (birth control) was said to be “black genocide” at the first Black Power Conference held in July 1967. In 1970 after abortion was more widely legalized, some black militants named abortion specifically as part of the conspiracy theory. Most African-American women were not convinced of a conspiracy, and rhetoric about race genocide faded. However, in 1973, media revelations about decades of government-sponsored compulsory sterilization led some to say that this was part of a plan for black genocide.
During the Vietnam War, the increasing use of black soldiers in combat provided a basis for the accusation of a government-supported “black genocide”. In recent decades the disproportionately high black prison population has been cited in support of the theory.
Slavery as genocide
See article on Maafa.
Jim Crow as genocide
Petition to the United Nations
After World War II and following many years of mistreatment of African Americans by white Americans, the US government’s official policies regarding the matter shifted significantly. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in 1946 that negative international opinion about US racial policies brought pressure to bear on the US and that this was helping to alleviate the mistreatment “of racial and national minorities”. In 1948 President Harry S. Truman signed an order desegregating the military. Black citizens increasingly challenged existing ways of racial discrimination.
The United Nations (UN) was formed in 1945. The UN debated and adopted a Genocide Convention in late 1948, holding that genocide was the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part”, a racial group. Based on the “in part” definition, the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a group composed of African Americans with Communist affiliations, presented to the UN in 1951 a petition called “We Charge Genocide”. The petition listed 10,000 unjust deaths of African Americans in the nine decades since the American Civil War. It described lynching, mistreatment, murder and oppression by whites against blacks to conclude that the US government was conducting a genocide of African Americans, by refusing to address “the persistent, widespread, institutionalized commission of the crime of genocide”. The petition was presented to the UN convention in Paris by CRC leader William L. Patterson, and in New York City by the singer and actor Paul Robeson who was a civil rights activist and a Communist member of CRC.
The Cold War raised American concerns about Communist expansionism. The CRC petition was viewed by the US government as being against America’s best interests with regard to fighting Communism. The petition was ignored by the UN; many of the charter countries looked to the US for guidance and were not willing to arm the enemies of the US with more propaganda about its failures in domestic racial policy. American responses to the petition were various: Radio journalist Drew Pearson spoke out against the supposed “Communist propaganda” before it was presented to the UN. Professor Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer who had helped draft the UN Genocide Convention, said that the CRC petition was a misguided effort which drew attention away from the Soviet Union’s genocide of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) issued a statement saying that there was no black genocide even though serious matters of racial discrimination certainly did exist in America. Walter Francis White, leader of the NAACP, wrote that the CRC petition contained “authentic” instances of discrimination, mostly taken from reliable sources. He said, “Whatever the sins of the nation against the Negro—and they are many and gruesome—genocide is not among them.” UN Delegate Eleanor Roosevelt said that it was “ridiculous” to characterize long term discrimination as genocide.
The “We Charge Genocide” petition received more notice in international news than in domestic US media. French and Czech media carried the story prominently, as did newspapers in India. In 1952, African-American author J. Saunders Redding travelling in India was repeatedly asked questions about specific instances of civil rights abuse in the US, and the CRC petition was used by Indians to rebut his assertions that US race relations were improving. In the US, the petition faded from public awareness by the late 1950s. In 1964, Malcolm X and his Organization of Afro-American Unity, citing the same lynchings and oppression described in the CRC petition, began to prepare its own petition to the UN asserting that the US government was engaging in genocide against black people. The 1964 Malcolm X speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” also draws from “We Charge Genocide”.
Beginning in 1907, some US state legislatures passed laws allowing for the compulsory sterilization of criminals, mentally retarded people, and institutionalized mentally ill patients. At first, African Americans and white Americans suffered sterilization in roughly equal ratio. By 1945, some 70,000 Americans had been sterilized in these programs. In the 1950s, the federal welfare program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was criticized by some whites who did not want to subsidize poor black families. States such as North and South Carolina performed sterilization procedures on low-income black mothers who were giving birth to their second child. The mothers were told that they would have to agree to have their tubes tied or their welfare benefits would be cancelled, along with the benefits of the families they were born into. Because of such policies, especially prevalent in Southern states, sterilization of African Americans increased from 23% of the total in the 1930s and 1940s to 59% at the end of the 1950s and rose further to 64% in the mid-1960s.
Systemic racism as genocide
African Americans pushed for equal participation in US military service in the first part of the 20th century and especially during World War II. Finally, President Harry S. Truman signed legislation to integrate the US military in 1948. However, Selective Service System deferments, military assignments, and especially the recruits accepted through Project 100,000 resulted in a greater representation of blacks in combat in the Vietnam War in the second half of the 1960s. African Americans represented 11% of the US population but 12.6% of troops sent to Vietnam. Cleveland Sellers said that the drafting of poor black men into the war was “a plan to commit calculated genocide”. Former SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael, black congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and SNCC member Rap Brown agreed. In October 1969, King’s widow Coretta Scott King spoke at an anti-war protest held at the primarily black Morgan State College in Baltimore. Campus leaders published a statement against what they termed “black genocide” in Vietnam, blaming President Richard Nixon in the US as well as President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu and Vice President Nguyễn Cao Kỳ from South Vietnam.
In 1969, H. Rap Brown wrote in his autobiography, Die Nigger Die!, that American courts “conspire to commit genocide” against blacks by putting a disproportionate number of them in prison. Political scientist Joy A. James wrote that “antiblack genocide” is the motivating force which explains the way that US prisons are filled largely with black prisoners. Author and former prisoner Mansfield B. Frazier contends that the rumor in American ghettos “that whites are secretly engaged in a program of genocide against the black race” is given “a measure of validity” by the number of “black men of child-producing age who are imprisoned for crimes for which men of other races are not.
A falling birth rate has been identified by some observers as harmful to a race of people; for instance, in 1905 Teddy Roosevelt said that it was “race suicide” for white Americans if educated white women continued to have fewer children. Certain African-American leaders also taught that political power came with greater population. In 1934, Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association resolved that birth control constituted black genocide.
The combined oral contraceptive pill, popularly known as “the Pill”, was approved for US markets in 1957 as a medicine, and in 1961 for birth control. In 1962, civil rights activist Whitney Young told the National Urban League not to support birth control for blacks. Marvin Davies, leader of the Florida chapter of the NAACP, said that black women should reject birth control and produce more babies so that black political influence would increase in the future.
The Pill was considered expensive by working-class women; the first users were upper- and middle-class women. After President Lyndon B. Johnson, as part of his War on Poverty, obtained legislation in 1964 for government funding of birth control, Black militants became more concerned about a possible government-sponsored black genocide. Cecil B. Moore, head of the NAACP chapter in Philadelphia, spoke out against a Planned Parenthood program which was to establish a stronger presence in northern Philadelphia; the population in the targeted neighbourhoods was 70% black. Moore said it would be “race suicide” for blacks to embrace birth control.
From 1965 to 1970, black militant males, especially younger men from poverty-stricken areas, spoke out against birth control as black genocide. The Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam were the strongest voices. The Black Panther Party identified a number of injustices as contributing to black genocide, including social ills that were more serious in black populations, such as drug abuse, prostitution and sexually transmitted disease. Other injustices included unsafe housing, malnutrition and the over-representation of young black men on the front lines of the Vietnam War. Influential black activists such as singer/author Julius Lester and comedian Dick Gregory said that blacks should increase in population and avoid genocidal family planning measures. H. Rap Brown of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) held that black genocide consisted of four elements: more blacks executed than whites, malnutrition in impoverished areas affected blacks more than whites, the Vietnam War killed more blacks than whites, and birth control programs in black neighbourhoods were trying to end the black race. A birth control clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, was torched by black militants who said it contributed to black genocide.
Black Muslims said that birth control was against the teachings of the Koran and that the role of women in Muslim society was to produce children. In this context, the Black Muslims felt that birth control was a genocidal attack by whites. The Muslim weekly journal, Muhammad Speaks, carried many articles demonizing birth control.
In Newark, New Jersey, on July 1967, the Black Power movement held its first convention: the National Conference on Black Power. The convention identified several means by which whites were attempting the annihilation of blacks. Injustices in housing practices, reductions in welfare benefits, and government-subsidized family planning were named as elements of “black genocide”. Ebony magazine printed a story in March 1968 which revealed that black genocide was believed by poor blacks to be the impetus behind government-funded birth control.
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was a strong proponent of birth control for blacks. In 1966, he was honoured with the Margaret Sanger Award in Human Rights, an award based on the tireless birth control activism of Margaret Sanger, a co-founder of Planned Parenthood. King emphasized that birth control gave the black man better command over his personal economic situation, keeping the number of his children within his monetary means. In April 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed. Charles V. Willie wrote in 1971 that this event marked the beginning of serious reflection among African Americans “about the possibility of [black] genocide in America. There were lynchings, murders, and manslaughters in the past. But the assassination of Dr King was too much. Many blacks believed that Dr King had represented their best… If America could not accept Dr King, then many felt that no black person in America was safe.”
Black women were generally critical of the Black Power rejection of birth control. In 1968, a group of black radical feminists in Mt. Vernon, New York issued “The Sisters Reply”; a rebuttal which said that birth control gave black women the “freedom to fight the genocide of black women and children,” referring to the greater death rate among children and mothers in poor families. Frances M. Beal, co-founder of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee of the SNCC, refused to believe that the black woman must be subservient to the black man’s wishes. Angela Davis and Linda LaRue reacted against the Black Power limitations directing women to serve as mothers producing “warriors for the revolution.”Toni Cade said that indiscriminate births would not bring the liberation of blacks closer to realization; she advocated the Pill as a tool to help space out the births of black children, to make it easier for families to raise them. The Black Women’s Liberation Group accused “poor black men” of failing to support the babies they helped produce, therefore supplying young black women with reason to use contraceptives. Dara Abubakari, a black separatist, wrote that “women should be free to decide if and when they want children”. A 1970 study found that 80% of black women in Chicago approved of birth control and that 75% of women in their child-bearing years were using it. A 1971 study found that a majority of black men and women were in favour of government-subsidized birth control.
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a community struggle for and against a birth control clinic in the Homewood area of east Pittsburgh made national news. Women in Pittsburgh had lobbied for a birth control clinic in the 1920s and were relieved in 1931 when the American Birth Control League (ABCL) established one. The ABCL changed its name in 1942 to Planned Parenthood. The Pittsburgh clinic initiated an educational outreach program to poor families in the Lower Hill District in 1956. This program was twinned into the poverty-stricken Homewood-Brushton area in 1958. Planned Parenthood considered opening another clinic there and conducted meetings with community leaders. In 1963 a mobile clinic was moved around the area. In December 1965, the Planned Parenthood Clinic of Pittsburgh (PPCP) applied for federal funding based on the War on Poverty legislation Johnson had promoted. In May 1966 the application was approved, and PPCP began to establish clinics throughout Pittsburgh, a total of 18 by 1967, 11 of these subsidized by the federal government and placed in poor districts. In mid-1966 the Pennsylvania state legislature held up family planning funds in committee. Catholic bishops gained media exposure for their assertion that Pittsburgh birth control efforts were a form of covert black genocide. In November 1966 the bishops said that the government was coercing poor people to have smaller families. Some black leaders such as local NAACP member Dr Charles Greenlee agreed with the bishops that birth control was black genocide. Greenlee said Planned Parenthood was “an honourable and good organization” but that the federal Office of Economic Opportunity was sponsoring genocidal programs. Greenlee said “the Negro’s birth rate is the only weapon he has. When he reaches 21 he can vote.” Greenlee targeted the Homewood clinic for closure; in doing so he allied with black militant William “Bouie” Haden and Catholic prelate Charles Owen Rice to speak out against black genocide, and against PPCP’s educational outreach program. Planned Parenthood’s Director of Community Relations Dr Douglas Stewart said that the false charge of black genocide was harming the national advancement of blacks. In July 1968, Haden announced he was willing to blow up the clinic to keep it from operating. The Catholic church paid him a salary of $10,000, igniting an outcry in Pittsburgh media. Bishop John Wright was called a “puppet of Bouie Haden”. The PPCP closed the Homewood clinic in July 1968 and stopped its educational program because of concerns about violence. The black congregation of the Bethesda United Presbyterian Church issued a statement saying that accusations of black genocide were “patently false”. A meeting was scheduled for March 1969 to discuss the issue. About 200 women, mostly black, appeared in support of the clinic, and it was reopened. This was seen as a major defeat for the black militant notion that government-funded birth control was black genocide.
Other prominent black advocates for birth control included Carl Rowan, James L. Farmer, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Jerome H. Holland, Ron Dellums and Barbara Jordan.
In the US in the 21st century, black people are most likely to be at risk of unintended pregnancy: 84% of black women of reproductive age use birth control, in contrast to 91% of Caucasian and Hispanic women, and 92% of Asian Americans. This results in black women having the highest rate of unintended pregnancy—in 2001, almost 10% of black women giving birth between the ages of 15 to 44 had unintended pregnancies, which was more than twice the rate of white women. Poverty affects these statistics, as low-income women are more likely to experience a disruption in their lives; disruption which affects the steady use of birth control. People in poor areas are more suspicious of the health care system, and they may refuse medical treatment and advice, especially for less-critical wellness treatments such as birth control.
Slave women brought with them from Africa the knowledge of traditional folk birth control practices, and of abortion obtained through the use of herbs, blunt trauma, and other methods of killing the fetus or producing strong uterine cramps. Slave women were often expected to breed more slave children to enrich their owners, but some quietly rebelled. In 1856 a white doctor reported that a number of slave owners were upset that their slaves appeared to hold a “secret by which they destroy the foetus at an early age of gestation”. However, this folk knowledge was suppressed in the new American culture, especially by the nascent American Medical Association, and its practice fell away.
After slavery ended, black women formed social groups and clubs in the 1890s to “uplift their race.” The revolutionary idea that a black woman might enjoy a full life without ever being a mother was presented in Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin’s magazine The Woman’s Era. Knowledge was secretly shared among clubwomen regarding how to find practitioners offering illegal medical or traditional abortion services. Working-class black women forced more often into sex with white men, continued to find a need for birth control and abortion. Black women who earned less than $10 per day paid $50 to $75 for an illegal and dangerous abortion. Throughout the 20th century, “backstreet” abortion providers in black neighbourhoods were also sought out by poor white women who wanted to rid themselves of a pregnancy. Abortion providers who were black were prosecuted much more often than white ones.
In the Tennessee General Assembly in 1967, Dorothy Lavinia Brown, MD, the first African-American woman surgeon and a state assemblywoman, was the first American to sponsor a proposed bill to fully legalize abortion. Though this early effort failed, abortion was made legal in various US states from 1967 to 1972. During this time the Black Panthers printed pamphlets describing abortion as black genocide, expanding on their earlier stance regarding family planning. However, most minority groups stood in favour of the decriminalization of abortion; the New York Times reported in 1970 that more non-white women than white women died as a result of “crude, illegal abortions”. Legalized abortion was expected to produce fewer deaths of the mother. A poll in Buffalo, New York, conducted by the National Organization for Women (NOW), found that 75% of blacks supported the decriminalization of abortion.
After the January 1973, Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision made abortion legal in the US, Jet magazine publisher Robert E. Johnson authored an article called “Legal Abortion: Is It Genocide Or Blessing In Disguise?” Johnson cast the issue as one which polarized the black community along gender lines: black women generally viewed abortion as a “blessing in disguise” but black men such as Reverend Jesse Jackson viewed it as black genocide. Jackson said he was in favour of birth control but not abortion. The next year, Senator Mark Hatfield, an activist against legal abortion, emphasized to Congress that Jackson “regards abortion as a form of genocide practised against blacks.”
In Jet, Johnson quoted Lu Palmer, a radio journalist in Chicago, who said that there was inequity between the sexes: a young black man who helped create an unwanted pregnancy could go his “merry way” while the young woman involved was stigmatized by society and saddled with a financial and emotional burden, often without a safety net of caregivers to sustain her. Civil rights lawyer Florynce Kennedy criticized the idea that black women were needed to populate the Black Power revolution. She said that black majorities in the Deep South were not known to be hotbeds of revolution and that limiting black women to the role of mothers was “not too far removed from a cultural past where Black women were encouraged to be breeding machines for their slave masters.” Tennessee Assemblywoman Dorothy Brown said black women “should dispense quickly the notion that abortion is genocide”, rather, they should look to the earliest Atlantic slave traders as the root of genocide. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm wrote in 1970 that the linking of abortion and genocide “is male rhetoric, for male ears.”
However, a link between abortion and black genocide has been claimed by later observers. Mildred Fay Jefferson, a surgeon and an activist against legal abortion, wrote about black genocide in 1978, saying “abortionists have done more to get rid of generations and cripple others than all of the years of slavery and lynching.”
In 2009, American pro-life activists in Georgia revived the idea that a black genocide was in progress. A strong response from this strategy was observed among blacks, and in 2010 more focus was placed on describing abortion as black genocide. White pro-life activist Mark Crutcher produced a documentary called Maafa 21 which criticizes Planned Parenthood and its founder Margaret Sanger and describes various historic aspects of eugenics, birth control and abortion with the aim of convincing the viewer that abortion is black genocide. Pro-life activists showed the documentary to black audiences across the US. The film was criticized as propaganda and a false representation of Sanger’s work. In March 2011, a series of abortion-as-genocide billboard advertisements were shown in South Chicago, an area with a large population of African Americans. From May to November 2011, presidential candidate Herman Cain criticized Planned Parenthood, calling abortion “planned genocide” and “black genocide”.
In 1976, sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz published an analysis of black genocide and concluded that racist vigilantism and sporadic action by individual whites was to blame for the various statistics that show blacks suffering from higher death rates. Horowitz concluded that the US government could not be implicated as a conspirator, that there was no conspiracy to engage in concerted black genocide.
Political scientist Joy A. James wrote in 2013 that the “logical conclusion” of American racism is genocide, and that members of the black elite are complicit, along with white Americans, in carrying out black genocide.