North Carolina offered reparations on Tuesday to victims of its nearly-half-century sterilization campaign. Starting with Indiana in 1907, more than half of the states codified eugenics programs of varying degrees of fervor during the twentieth century. But North Carolina is thus far the only state to offer to compensate the victims.
“We are attempting to achieve a level of financial compensation and other services that can provide meaningful assistance,” explained Dr. Laura Gerald, chair of the state’s Eugenics Task Force. “Compensation also serves a collective purpose for the state and sends a clear message that we in North Carolina are a people who pay for our mistakes and that we do not tolerate bureaucracies that trample on basic human rights.”
But the state tolerated trampling on “basic human rights” under the guise of progress between 1929 and 1974. The task force’s recommendations have the endorsement of Governor Bev Perdue and await the approval of the state legislature. Support in the legislature appears both wide and bipartisan.
The Tarheel State’s press has been instrumental in exposing decades-long legislative and bureaucratic malfeasance. The role of their journalistic forebears in propagandizing for eugenics hasn’t piqued their curiosity as much. The editorial page editor of the Durham Morning Herald, for instance, was a member of the Human Betterment League as late as the 1960s. The same Charlotte Observer, Winston Salem Journal, and Raleigh News and Observer that inveigh against the state’s eugenic past also played a role in creating that past.
Joseph L. Morrison, a longtime professor in the University of North Carolina’s journalism department, defended the state’s eugenics laws as late as 1965. “If compulsory sterilization of unwed mothers could be seriously debated in two successive General Assemblies of North Carolina, reputedly the most progressive southern state, it is well to study the forces underlying such punitive proposals,” he wrote in the Social Service Review. “What could have induced the legislators to think of altering their state’s enlightened Eugenic Sterilization Law to subserve a vengeful purpose?” But the law wasn’t particularly “enlightened,” even though preferable to the alternatives introduced. Morrison criticized the racist intent of the proposed laws as he overlooked the racist effect of the existing law.
The late Tom Wicker, long a political reporter and columnist for the New York Times, launched his career in journalism as a propagandist for North Carolina’s department of public welfare. “I wrote, in effect, press releases—and hoped for the best. I didn’t make any distinction in my own mind between the eugenics program and feeding the hungry,” Wicker told the Winston Salem Journal. “I feel very badly about it in retrospect.” Wicker, who died at 85 last year, spoke to the Journal in 2002. What he terms “press releases” wound up as copy in newspapers around the state. “We [journalists] were all kind of convinced that what our government was doing was right—that it wouldn’t lie to you.”
North Carolina’s most well-known journalistic name was also the name most heavily involved in its crusade to mutilate the reproductive organs of those deemed “unfit.” Wallace Kuralt, made famous by his CBS newsman son Charles before he was posthumously made infamous by the sterilization scandal, served as director of public welfare in the county most zealously imposing North Carolina’s eugenics law. “I suppose,” he boasted of Mecklenburg County, “no comparable population in the world has ever received more eugenic sterilizations.” A doctor, an employee, and a daughter stressed his liberal credentials to the Charlotte Observer. “He was a hero with women’s reproductive rights.” “He was a forward-thinking person for that time, particularly in the welfare business.” “He was certainly concerned about the underprivileged.” They talk as though Kuralt’s progressivism mitigates, rather than explains, his paternalistic trespass of others’ bodily organs.
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