Point of view

NC must commit to finding eugenics victims before June 30 deadline

April 28, 2014 

Eugenics and North Carolina have a long history. While the rest of the country curtailed eugenics programs following the revelations of Nazi atrocities, North Carolina actually increased forced sterilizations of poor residents, ultimately sterilizing 7,600 men, women and children in every county of the state between 1933 and 1974.

Despite this shameful history, North Carolina can claim to be the first state to formally apologize and to pass a bill to financially compensate victims of its eugenics program. However, the June 30 application deadline is fast approaching for victims of North Carolina’s forced sterilization program, and only 240 residents have been registered and matched for compensation. The N.C. State Center for Health Statistics estimates that between 1,800 and 2,944 victims may still be living. That means potentially thousands of people eligible for compensation might lose out on their share of the $10 million appropriated in the 2013 Eugenics Compensation Bill.

Many of the victims of forced sterilization were singled out because they were poor. These individuals could very well still be poverty-stricken and without access to a computer or the Internet. If our apology is sincere and has any integrity, it is our responsibility as residents of this state to do all we can to help identify North Carolina’s victims of eugenics and connect them with the State Industrial Commission. This means that our churches, religious leaders, civic organizations, political leaders and neighbors must raise awareness of the June 30 application deadline. We must also be prepared to help victims with filling out and submitting the application forms. Victims and their families can access the forms and find more information about compensation at sterilizationvictims.nc.gov.

The pioneers of North Carolina’s government sterilization program were wealthy and powerful individuals from academia, industry, media and medicine. They used flawed science and the resources of the state to legitimize the genetic “purification” of North Carolinians the Eugenics Board deemed too poor, promiscuous or “feebleminded” to bear children.

In the days of Jim Crow, poor whites were just as likely as blacks to be sterilized in North Carolina. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the South, the Tar Heel state increasingly focused its sterilization program upon poor black women. On April 1, 1959, state Sen. Wilbur Jolly, a white Democrat from Franklin County, introduced what would become known as the Jolly Bill, suggesting sterilization as the solution for the rate of out-of-wedlock births, which were soaring at the time.

John Railey of the Winston-Salem Journal wrote, “Jolly’s bill never made it to the Senate floor, but in a sense it didn’t matter. For years, the Eugenics Board of North Carolina had been quietly ordering sterilizations for unwed mothers. And beginning in the mid-1950s, the board had begun a pattern of sterilizing a disproportionate share of blacks.” This trend continued longer than any other in the country; it was not disbanded until 1974.

My predecessor, the Rev. W.W. Finlator, attended the hearing on the Jolly Bill on that April day in 1959. Years later, speaking of the eugenics program, he said, “There’s a phrase that Martin Luther called ‘wicked silence.’ There was a time when I was guilty of wicked silence.” Bill Finlator was not a man of silence. More than any other religious leader of his da,y Bill spoke out boldly and courageously on the injustices of racism and poverty.

For him to confess “wicked silence” should get our attention.

The strength of a society’s moral fabric can be measured by its people’s unwavering commitment to the threads of dignity and respect for all individuals – regardless of their race, economic background, educational opportunities, sexual preferences or any other characteristics that would divide people into categories of those worthy and unworthy. We have a moral obligation as citizens to speak out and protect our most vulnerable neighbors. In the days and years to come, may we not have to confess our own wicked silence when it comes to the injustices of racism, poverty and the misuse of power and privilege.

Rev. Dr. Nancy E. Petty is pastor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh.

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