Family Planning – A Special and Urgent Concern by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

[ Below are excerpts from this May 5, 1966 speech by Martin Luther King Jr. after he was awarded the Margaret Sanger Award by Planned Parenthood ]

Recently, the press has been filled with reports of sightings of flying saucers. While we need not give credence to these stories, they allow our imagination to speculate on how visitors from outer space would judge us. I am afraid they would be stupefied at our conduct. They would observe that for death planning we spend billions to create engines and strategies for war. They would also observe that we spend millions to prevent death by disease and other causes. Finally they would observe that we spend paltry sums for population planning, even though its spontaneous growth is an urgent threat to life on our planet. Our visitors from outer space could be forgiven if they reported home that our planet is inhabited by a race of insane men whose future is bleak and uncertain.

There is no human circumstance more tragic than the persisting existence of a harmful condition for which a remedy is readily available. Family planning, to relate population to world resources, is possible, practical and necessary.

Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.

What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victims.

There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist – a nonviolent resister. She was willing to accept scorn and abuse until the truth she saw was revealed to the millions. At the turn of the century she went into the slums and set up a birth control clinic, and for this deed she went to jail because she was violating an unjust law. Yet the years have justified her actions. She launched a movement which is obeying a higher law to preserve human life under humane conditions. Margaret Sanger had to commit what was then called a crime in order to enrich humanity, and today we honor her courage and vision; for without them there would have been no beginning. Our sure beginning in the struggle for equality by nonviolent direct action may not have been so resolute without the tradition established by Margaret Sanger and people like her. Negroes have no mere academic nor ordinary interest in family planning. They have a special and urgent concern.

Recently the subject of Negro family life has received extensive attention. Unfortunately, studies have overemphasized the problem of the Negro male ego and almost entirely ignored the most serious element – Negro migration. During the past half century Negroes have migrated on a massive scale, transplanting millions from rural communities to crammed urban ghettoes. In their migration, as with all migrants, they carried with them the folkways of the countryside into an inhospitable city slum. The size of family that may have been appropriate and tolerable on a manually cultivated farm was carried over to the jammed streets of the ghetto. In all respects Negroes were atomized, neglected and discriminated against. Yet, the worst omission was the absence of institutions to acclimate them to their new environment. Margaret Sanger, who offered an important institutional remedy, was unfortunately ignored by social and political leaders in this period. In consequence, Negro folkways in family size persisted. The problem was compounded when unrestrained exploitation and discrimination accented the bewilderment of the newcomer, and high rates of illegitimacy and fragile family relationships resulted.

For the Negro, therefore, intelligent guides of family planning are a profoundly important ingredient in his quest for security and a decent life. There are mountainous obstacles still separating Negroes from a normal existence. Yet one element in stabilizing his life would be an understanding of and easy access to the means to develop a family related in size to his community environment and to the income potential he can command.

The Negro constitutes half the poor of the nation. Like all poor, Negro and white, they have many unwanted children. This is a cruel evil they urgently need to control. There is scarcely anything more tragic in human life than a child who is not wanted. That which should be a blessing becomes a curse for parent and child. There is nothing inherent in the Negro mentality which creates this condition. Their poverty causes it. When Negroes have been able to ascend economically, statistics reveal they plan their families with even greater care than whites. Negroes of higher economic and educational status actually have fewer children than white families in the same circumstances.

For these constructive movements we are prepared to give our energies and consistent support; because in the need for family planning, Negro and white have a common bond; and together we can and should unite our strength for the wise preservation, not of races in general, but of the one race we all constitute – the human race.

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2 Responses to Family Planning – A Special and Urgent Concern by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

  1. Weogo Reed says:

    Hi Alice,

    Martin Luther King speaking about population control in 1966 is something I had forgotten.

    I am happy to learn about Margaret Sanger.
    What an amazing woman, and recognizing population issues a century ago!

    I got the population message at age 15, and biologically, fathered one child.

    Some questions for you:
    ) What year will the world’s human population peak?
    And what will that population number be?
    ) What will be the world’s population be in 2100?
    (John Michael Greer asked these questions at a conference where I did audio production.)

    I am not an in any way an expert on the subject, but here are my guesses:
    ) Peak in 2020 at about 8 billion.
    ) 2100 population 3 billion. Long-term, about a billion for a century or two, up to maybe two billion as fisheries recover, chemically damaged lands re-balance themselves, climate stabilizes a bit(maybe).

    For reference, the UN says population will peak at 9.7 billion by 2050.
    I simply don’t see how we can feed so many people with affordable fossil fuels in decline, a more variable climate, water issues and so many other factors.

    I remember women being encouraged to ‘liberate’ themselves, go to school and get jobs before having babies, and at the time thinking this was a good idea.
    Another reason for this was that if the trend for women was to have babies later, that pushes the birth demographic out a little farther.
    Additionally, maybe they would be ‘successful’ in business, and desire fewer children, or just be too old to have another child.
    A tiny bit of covert population control.

    All that said, where is the discussion of the increased health issues for older mothers and the children they give birth to?
    How has this affected families, schools, health care costs, communities?
    Biologically, a woman has the fewest birth complications and the child the fewest health issues when the mother gives birth between the ages of about 18 and 20. Up to age 25 there are slightly more problems, and to about 29 a few more problems still. Beyond that, the curve just gets steeper.
    What about reversing that trend, and women having one(or two) healthy child at a young age?
    (Young men also have a role here, as they father healthier children than older men.)

    Another factor here that I have heard nothing about is older grandparents.
    I’m sixty and have a newborn grandchild.
    If my child had been born when I was twenty, and twenty years later I became a grandparent, well, I had more energy for small, mobile humans at 40 and even 50 than 60.

    A point I read on a blog post recently regarding immigration:
    While many immigrants are very low wage agricultural workers,
    many are very bright and well educated.
    While it may be great for a company(and our country) to hire these bright young people, we are impoverishing the countries they came from.
    If it was difficult for bright young Syrians to leave, maybe they would be bombed to death, but just maybe, they would make their home country a better place…

    Thanks and good health, Weogo

    • energyskeptic says:

      Well, to answer all your questions would take a book! I hate to guess at dates — there are too many factors. A small nuclear war would kill billions. An EMP attack on the US could kill up to 90% of the population. A pandemic could sweep the world and kill hundreds of millions. Once the exponential depletion of oil is up to 9% a year, within 20 years or less, agricultural production will decline and/or not be distributed and rot in the fields, the resulting social unrest and mass migrations many more deaths. If we hadn’t polluted the land, air, and water so much, destroyed so much topsoil to grow massive amounts of food, and lived near where food was grown (for example, in the USA, 80% of people live within 200 miles of the coast, but 80% of food calories are grown in the corn and wheat belts of the interior), then in the USA we could support 100 million and 1.5 billion. That was the number of people before the Haber-Bosch process to make natural-gas feedstock and energy source of nitrogen fertilizers that allowed at least another 4 billion people to be alive since they allowed up to 5 times as much food to be grown as before.

      Fossil fuels will not “run out” for at least 1,000 years, but they’ll be a much smaller percent of energy and we’ll increasingly go back to burning biomass as our ancestors have for the past million years.

      But now that we’ve trashed the planet, depleted soil and aquifers, with climate change greatly reducing agricultural production via drought, floods, late frosts and so on, I expect the carrying capacity will be less world-wide than before the oil-age began.

      But carrying capacity is a tricky concept. The 100 million figure is for wine once a weak, a good diet where none go hungry, and average livespan of 70 (if anti-biotic resistance can be overcome). But during the industrial revolution in Britain, the average lifespan declined to about 24 as people were kicked off the land and factories didn’t provide enough wages for people to be properly fed. When you hear about the criminals sent to Australia or the U.S., often the “crime” was stealing apples as overshoot drove people to desperation. So maybe you could have 200 million miserable, short-lived people in America after the crash (though that depends on how much havoc climate change, rising sea levels, disease, and other factors play out). All I know is that Malthus will be proven right. When the blame game starts I hope that blame will land on the right people — the rich who wanted cheap labor and therefore no birth control, abortion, and as much immigration as possible, and the religious leaders, especially the misogynist pedophile Catholic priests, who fought the rights of women to control their own bodies and futures.

      But the wealthy have the money to brainwash people into thinking it was the ecologists, environmentalists, and scientists like Paul Erlich who wrote “The Population Bomb” or the authors of “Limits to Growth” who are at fault. If that sounds crazy, then I hope you’ll read “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer.

      In fact, the republican right (Libertarians mainly), are so effective at using their money to get racist, greedy politicians elected whose goal is no taxes, no regulations, and the government’s only role to be a security guard to private property and business, that in the U.S. the number of people who survive the “energy cliff” of peak oil will be substantially lower than under compassionate Democratic leadership.

      I know that there’s an argument to be made for the sooner and harder the crash, the better to protect biodiversity and stop climate change effects, but a surviving population of only the most brutal, rather than the most cooperative, may do more damage for a longer time.