Lawmakers give lip service to sterilization

by Jim Longworth

Recently a task force convened in Raleigh to allow surviving victims of forced sterilization to tell their horror stories to the public. The hearing was held in June, which is appropriate, because it played like a summer rerun.

Many of the same victims who spoke this time had appeared at similar hearings previously. Their testimony was all too familiar and disturbing to those of us who had been reading about forced sterilizations ever since the Winston-Salem Journal published a series of articles back in 2002 which brought to light the state’s worst-ever organized transgressions against its own citizens. The Journal’s award winning expose prompted then-Gov. Mike Easley to make a formal apology to victims and their families, and resulted in the formation of the Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation. The JSVF then set about the work of identifying, locating and verifying any and all survivors of state-sponsored forced sterilizations. But the foundation was only mandated and funded to gather data, not to pay reparations. That’s like building a car, then refusing to put gas in it. In any event, the Eugenics Task Force has met periodically, and has facilitated testimony that would hopefully compel state lawmakers to authorize monetary compensation for victims. Unfortunately, the victims have only received lip service.

Gov. Perdue attended the most recent hearings, and allowed herself to be photographed looking concerned and quoted as being in support of reparations. But that concern, I fear, is not going to translate into action. Yes, the General Assembly is controlled by Republicans, but that’s okay with the governor, because when her party was in control, most Democrats ran for cover when asked about paying victims of forced sterilization. in that regard, both political parties are guilty of gross inaction.

Years ago, Rep Larry Womble asked his fellow legislators to pay $50,000 in reparations to the 3,600 survivors. When that didn’t fly, he downsized his request to $20,000 per person. But his requests have continually been met with lame denials. It’s one thing to say that we can’t afford reparations during a weak economy, but monetary compensation was also voted down during times when our state’s economy was booming. Forced sterilizations in North Carolina were all about racism and social engineering, and sadly, our unwillingness to bring closure to this sad chapter, demonstrates that many of our politicians still haven’t advanced too far from the thinking of their predecessors. We’ve all heard the arguments by white lawmakers against slavery reparations, chief among them that “slavery happened over a century ago.” Okay, I get it. But North Carolina sterilized nearly 8,000 people against their will, and did so until the law was changed in 1974. That’s not ancient history, that’s current events.

Even worse, while every other state in the nation curtailed forced sterilizations following World War II, North Carolina actually stepped up their ethnic cleansing initiative thanks to the Winston-Salem-based Human Betterment League and its overt campaign to reduce the welfare rolls of the state. Thousands of African American teenage girls were sterilized because they had one child out of wedlock. Some went under the knife because their pregnancies resulted from rape. One girl was sterilized for passing love notes in school. A 9-year-old black boy was castrated because he acted up in class. These were horrible procedures that ruined the lives of victims, and yet our elected officials just can’t bring themselves to help survivors financially. It is my opinion that politicians in both parties are simply stalling until such time as there won’t be any victims alive to compensate. If that is true, then the era we live in now will prove to be just as dark a chapter in our state’s history as the era in which the crimes were committed.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).