In the United States where symbols are so often monolithic it’s easy to ignore how ghastly a statue is because oppressive emblems are commonly believed to be unremarkable. Still there comes a time when some monuments can’t be blinked away. Let’s take Margaret Sanger for example.
Sanger was was a eugenicist. She was an “equal opportunity” eugenicist as she believed people of color and the disabled should not be born. Today she’s mostly remembered as a champion for women’s reproductive rights but make no mistake: she wanted to prevent black births and eliminate the disabled.
Still a bust of Sanger is proudly on display at the National Portrait Gallery alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. I think it is fair to say that if Sanger had had her way neither King or Parks would’ve been born. Certainly she’d have voted against the birth of any disabled child. I’m a member of that group, blind since birth.
The National Portrait Gallery does have a sign mentioning Sanger’s work with eugenics. This puts the gallery’s curators a step ahead of the defenders of confederate statues, most of whom want untroubled devotion to a vicious past. Sanger’s bust stands on its pedestal warts and all. Isn’t that enough?
Perhaps. Maybe we should simply put cautionary footnotes on all our nation’s offensive monuments.
Yet I don’t think Sanger should be in the gallery at all. She actively advocated for the deaths of minorities. This is a litmus test: in life did you stand for human dignity and equality or not? Sanger fought for the rights of women to have control over their reproductive lives. She’s heroic for that. Until one admits she wanted some people in the lifeboats and not others.
I say she’s a vile figure. She lectured to the KKK. That’s a second litmus test. Anyone who spent her or his time in the vicinity of a burning cross deserves lasting condemnation.
The full history of eugenics in the United States is still being uncovered. The Carnegie Foundation, J.H. Kellogg, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Leland Stanford, all promoted theories of racial superiority and advocated for eliminating certain minorities.
Some statues are horrific. They belong in an atrocity museum and not in places of customary veneration. Certainly Margaret Sanger doesn’t belong in the same room with Rosa Parks and Dr. King.