The Case for Genocide in Mississippi – Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Pamphlet – University of Virginia Special Collections Holdings
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) call for a consideration and scrutiny of the acts of Mississippi’s State government, on the grounds of perpetuating genocide, was raised in response to House Bill No. 180 passed in the Legislature in Regular Session 1964, which had garnered wide support from representatives throughout the state.
The Bill’s history is one that highlights the complexity of the modes of coercion and destruction that were being enacted at each level of the Mississippi State government.
The Act was passed by the Mississippi Legislature in 1964 and stated in its title as “An Act to provide that any person who shall become the parent of an illegitimate child shall be guilty of a felony and to provide the punishment therefor.” A minimum sentence was declared as “not less than one year,” but extending to three years imprisonment. A second conviction would result in a minimum of three years imprisonment, extending to five. The only alternative to imprisonment offered was forced sterilization.*
A previous charge had been brought to the United Nations in 1951 by the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a group formed in 1946 to call public attention to racial discrimination and injustice through organized litigation and public demonstrations. The CRC formed the petition that was presented to the United Nations’ Assembly in Paris in 1951 based on the criteria set by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG), which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948 and entered into force on January 12, 1951. The 237 page document was titled “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People” and charged the United States government with violence and mistreatment of African Americans. The document cited the many instances of both recent (within five years prior) and historical murders (by lynching or other means) of African Americans, as well as beatings and wrongful executions by public officials. The petition also brought into question the legal and political discrimination and coercion being conducted at every level of Federal and State government, including the denial of the right to vote. It was presented to members of the UN delegation by William Patterson, the executive secretary of CRC.
The 1951 petition was not recognized by the United Nations due to pressure from the US government. Attempts were made to stifle the petition from reaching the UN delegates and Patterson’s passport was revoked after he refused to surrender it to US Embassy officials in Paris. Other CRC members, including Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, were deterred from delivering copies of the petition to the delegation and to UN members in New York.
There was very little public reception to the document due to suppressed coverage in the national news. There were associations beginning to be made between civil rights groups and the communist party and the perpetuated notion that communist party members had infiltrated civil rights groups.
The CRC had been a target of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and was labeled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a communist front. The CRC’s decline was instigated as a result of the 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act, which increased government intervention towards the group’s activities, in which a significant portion of its leadership was imprisoned. In 1951, the federal government barred it from posting bail for communist defendants in the resulting trials.
One of the major opponents of the 1951 Genocide petition was Raphael Lemkin, the progenitor of the term ‘genocide’ and a major force in the UN who helped define genocide and the UN sanctions and enforcement policies against such acts internationally. Lemkin believed that the CRC was influenced by communist political groups to divert attention from acts of genocide being committed by Russia. As John Docker chronicles in his article, “Raphaël Lemkin, Creator of the Concept of Genocide: A World History Perspective,” William Patterson later wrote about Lemkin—who was acting as a legal academic for the UN at the time of the petition:
[Lemkin] “‘argued vehemently that the provisions of the Genocide Convention bore no relation to the US Government or its position vis-à-vis Black citizens’. When The New York Times on December 18, 1951 asked Lemkin what he thought, he replied that the accusations were a maneuver to ‘divert attention from the crimes of genocide committed against Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles and other Soviet-subjugated peoples’. Patterson and Robeson, he declared, were ‘un-American’ elements, serving a foreign power. Later, on June 14, 1953, Lemkin wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times in which he declared that African Americans enjoyed conditions of increasing prosperity and progress in the United States; though they might experience discrimination, they had not suffered ‘destruction, death, annihilation’—the essence of genocide—an odd narrowing of both his own original definition and that of the UN Convention. In response to The New York Times op-ed, Oakley Johnson, one of those who helped write We Charge Genocide, wrote to Lemkin protesting that scare tactics and discrimination were not a case of white Americans frightening individual black Americans but of creating anguish in a racial group as a group; it concerned the terrorising of a whole race of people. (Lemkin)”
The bill was also not the first proposed or passed within the state, though it marked at the time an upswing in the trends of coercion and population control directed toward the African American community. In 1958, Representative David H. Glass introduced House Bill No. 479, “An Act to Discourage Immorality of Unmarried Females by Providing for Sterilization of the Unwed Mother Under Conditions of this Act; And for Related Purposes.”
1,955 lynching between 1889 and 1901 (not accounting for the estimates of undocumented cases)
By the time a second case was being built towards the violence and political coercion conducted in the Southern States, namely the Mississippi House Bill No. 108, there was already an institutionalized suspicion towards civil rights organizations as potential Communist organizers which was bolstered during the second Red Scare.
Eventually, “Under heavy pressure, the Senate relented. The sterilization section was dropped from the bill, and the penalties greatly reduced. (Paul)”
Despite this, in her June 8, 1964 testimony before the panel on civil rights in Washington, DC, organized by the Council of Federated Organizations, Fannie Lou Hamer ended her line of questioning with the following statement:
“One of the other things that happened in Sunflower County, the North Sunflower County Hospital, I would say about six out of the ten Negro women that go to the hospital are sterilized with the tubes tied. They are getting up a law that said if a woman has an illegitimate baby and then a second one, they could draw time for six months or a five-hundred-dollar fine. What they didn’t tell is that they are already doing these things, not only to single women, but to married women.”
Hamer’s claims charge that despite the absence of judicial authority, de facto practices continued to perpetuate sterilization in Mississippi hospitals. The regular practice of sterilization by means of surgical intrusion through hysterectomies or bilateral tubal sterilizations. Mississippi was targeted for its widespread civil rights violations, but still, amongst the other US States Mississippi was ranked 18 for most sterilizations. Mississippi’s sterilization bill, passed in 1928, allowed for the identification of “persons who are afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy (Landman, p. 91).” These distinctions were most often determined without medical basis and with no oversight. There was a widespread belief in 1950s and 60s that the practice would reduce the number of illegitimate births and thus economic strain on social welfare programs and general welfare relief, invalidly attributed to the African American population as having the highest illegitimate birth rates.
The choice for Mississippi to stand as a representative for Eugenic tactics in the United States was for its many counts of institutionalized destruction of people on the basis of skin color. Whether it was through murders by government officials or the denial of future generations through sterilization, Mississippi was highlighted as most endemic for violations on a general basis.
*“BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF MISSISSIPPI:
Section 1: If any person, who shall have previously become the natural parent of an illegitimate child within or without this State by coition within or without this State, shall again become the natural parent of an illegitimate child born within this State, he or she shall be quilty of a felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment in the State Penitentiary for not less than one (1) year nor more than three (3) years. A subsequent conviction hereunder shall be punishable by imprisonment in the penitentiary for not less than three (3) years nor more than five (5) years. Provided, however, that for the purpose of this act, multiple births shall be construed to be the birth of one (1) child. Provided that the emotional and psychological make-up of the offender shall be taken into consideration by the court of jurisdiction. Provided, however, that any parent convicted hereunder may submit to sterilization in lieu of imprisonment.
Section 2: The circuit court of the county in which said illegitimate child is born shall have jurisdiction of any action brought under this section, but no male person shall be convicted solely on the uncorroborated testimony of the female person giving birth to the child.
Section 3: On or before the tenth day of each month, the Mississippi State Health Department shall notify in writing the district attorney of each district in Mississippi of the name and address of each person shown as a parent on the birth certificate of any illegitimate child filed with said department during preceding month.
Section 4: This act shall take effect and be in force from and after ten (10) months after its passage.”
Docker, John. "Raphaël Lemkin, creator of the concept of genocide: a world history perspective ." Humanities Research 16.2 (2010): 49-74.
Hamer, Fannie Lou. The speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To tell it like it is. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2011.
Kunz, Josef L. "The United Nations Convention on Genocide." American Journal of International Law (1949): 738-746.
Landman, J. H. 1932. Human Sterilization: The History of the Sexual Sterilization Movement. New York: MacMillan
Lemkin, Raphael. The Afro American Dec 29, 1951.
Patterson, William L. “January 1, 1952 We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from a Crime of the United States Government Against the Negro People.” Civil Rights Congress. New York : International Publishers, 1951 [i.e. 1952]
Paul, Julius. "The return of punitive sterilization proposals: Current attacks on illegitimacy and the AFDC program." Law and Society Review (1968): 77-106.
“The Genocide Trap” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) [Chicago, Ill] 22 Dec 1951: 8.
“UN May Not Accept CRC Petition.” Atlanta Daily World (1932-2003) [Atlanta, Ga] 18 Jan 1952: 5.
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Paris, 9 December 1948. Audiovisual Library of International Law. http://legal.un.org/avl/ha/cppcg/cppcg.html
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 9 December 1948. Official texts: Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. Registered ex officio on 12 January 1951. https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%2078/volume-78-I-1021-English.pdf
Civil Rights Congress Again Outlawed as Bondsman for Reds. Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960) [Boston, Mass] 17 July 1951: 5.
U.S. Attacks Civil Rights Congress on Reds' Bail. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 11 July 1951: 14.
“Bill To Curb Illegitimacy Is Signed in Mississippi.” New York Times. 28 May 1964. At 28.
This article by the New York Times discusses the passage of Mississippi’s 1964 sterilization bill. It details the changes that were made to it before its passage and indicates those changes were a result of the negative attention the bill received.
Forman, James. “Negroes Reject Material Values, Work for a Better Society” in The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Papers, 1959-1972, (Sanford, NC: Microfilming Corporation of America, 1982). Davis Microforms Collection Microfilm1-2303, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Originals at the King Library and Archives, The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Atlanta, GA.
The piece was part of a symposium written in August and September of 1963 by prominent African American leaders. Forman, who was SNCC’s executive secretary at the time, details the threats African Americans in the south face throughout their lifetime. Forman suggests that this often includes a denial of the “right to be born.”
Fannie Lou Hamer quoted in Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights- Black Power Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 161.
This book contains articles about several African American Civil Rights activists, including one about Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer’s testimony at the National Theatre about the violence and mistreatment of African Americans in Mississippi is referenced. At this hearing, Hamer discussed the 1964 sterilization bill.
Hamer, Fannie Lou. “Testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer Before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention.” In Documentary History of the Modern Civil Rights Movement, ed. Peter B. Levy, 139-141. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.
This source is a collection of documents relating to the Civil Rights Movement and it includes a section of documents about Mississippi and the Freedom Summer project. One of those documents is the testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention. Hamer testified about the violence she faced as a result of her efforts to increase voter registration among African Americans in Mississippi and as a result of her participation in other SNCC activities.
Jaffe, Frederick S. and Steven Polgar. “Family Planning and Public Policy: Is the ‘Culture of Poverty’ the New Cop-Out?” Journal of Marriage and the Family 30, no. 2 (1968): 228-235.
This article examines the cultural-motivational and the accessibility approaches to studying poverty and their relation to family planning. Jaffe and Polgar indicate that income is inversely related to family size, that poor individuals do want and attempt to limit family size, they have obstacles to getting and using contraceptives, and that family planning programs can help overcome those obstacles. This article challenges the argument of Mississippi State Representative David H. Glass that poor African American women were having significant numbers of illegitimate children solely to profit economically from them.
“Letter to David Wolf from Mary E. King, March 10, 1964” in The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Papers, 1959-1972, (Sanford, NC: Microfilming Corporation of America, 1982). Davis Microforms Collection Microfilm1-2303, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Originals at the King Library and Archives, The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Atlanta, GA.
In this letter, Mary E. King invites Wolf to apply to work on the Freedom Summer project and indicates that she included information about the project and an application with her letter. This letter is one example of early promotion of the Freedom Summer Project.
“Letter to Lisa Anderson from Mary E. King, March 17, 1964” in The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Papers, 1959-1972, (Sanford, NC: Microfilming Corporation of America, 1982). Davis Microforms Collection Microfilm1-2303, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Originals at the King Library and Archives, The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Atlanta, GA.
In this letter, Mary E. King indicates that she received the latest newsletter from the Civil Rights Commission of Cornell United Religious Work, which Anderson published. King suggests that Anderson feature a story on the Freedom Summer project in her next newsletter. King provides Anderson with detailed information about the project and writes that she has included a brochure on Freedom Summer with her letter. This letter is another example of early promotion of the Freedom Summer Project.
“Mississippi: Nipped in the Bud.” Newsweek. 30 March 1964. At 21.
This article by Newsweek magazine discusses the proposal of Mississippi’s 1964 sterilization bill. It includes details about the bill and information about how various organizations and individuals reacted to it.
Paul, Julius. “Population ‘Quality’ and ‘Fitness for Parenthood’ in the Light of State Eugenic Sterilization Experience, 1907-1966.” Population Studies 21, no. 3 (1967): 295- 299.
This article offers a history of the Eugenics movement and the problems with various state sterilization policies. Paul mentions Mississippi’s proposed 1964 bill criminalizing having illegitimate children and how a subsequent version of the bill did pass, but without the option of sterilization in lieu of imprisonment. Paul attacks this and other sterilization laws for a number of reasons, including the “fitness for parenthood” standard and the significant amount of discretion public health officials have in controlling reproductive rights. This article provides arguments against compulsory (and some noncompulsory) sterilizations, which were practiced in a number of states during this time.
Julius Paul: “Mississippi"
The most persistent state in the nation in its efforts to “solve” the problem of illegitimacy through punitive sterilization is Mississippi. Since 1958, legislative proposals of various kinds have made headlines. In the 1958 legislative session, State Representative David H. Glass of Kosciusko proposed House Bill No. 479, “An Act to Discourage Immorality of Unmarried Females by Providing for Sterilization of the Unwed Mother Under Conditions of This Act; And for Related Purposes.” The bill provided for the chancery court to institute proceedings against any unmarried female giving birth to a second or subsequent illegitimate child. If the court found that the “immorality of the said female is detrimental to the welfare of the state or community,” it could order the state board of health to accomplish a “temporary or permanent sterilization” of the woman.
Sterilization could be avoided by two means: if the unmarried female provides evidence at the hearing that she is now married and living with her husband, the proceeding is dropped. Or, after the court orders a sterilization, if the unmarried female objects to the operation, she can be “relieved” from such sterilization by providing a bond of not less than $3000 “conditioned that she will cease and desist from such immorality and will amply support and maintain any illegitimate heretofore born to her and give them the benefit of a common school education.” However, if she gives birth to another illegitimate child, she forfeits the bond unless she had married and is living with her husband.
The Glass proposal died on the House calendar. The racial implications of the proposal were clearly set out by Rep. Glass in a communication to this writer:
"During the calendar year of 1957, there were born out of wedlock in Mississippi, more than 7,000 negro children, and about 200 white children. The negro woman, because of child welfare assistance, [is] making it a business, in some cases of giving birth to illegitimate children…The purpose of my bill was to try to stop, or slow down, such traffic at its source."
But this was only the beginning.
House Bill No. 180, introduced in the 1964 session by Rep. W.B. Meek and six others (listed in the pamphlet documentation), made it a felony for any person to become the parent of a second or subsequent illegitimate child within the State of Mississippi and conviction carried a penalty of not less than one year nor more than three years in the state penitentiary. A subsequent conviction was punishable by a prison sentence of not less than three years nor more than five years. This bill was unique in several respects. It made both parents punishable under the law. And in an amendment to the original proposal, Rep. W. Todd McCullough added a section that would enable ‘any parent convicted hereunder may submit to sterilization in lieu of imprisonment.’ It was this last provision which led to national attention (together with the rather stiff criminal penalties in the original bill).
This bill passed the House by a vote of 72 to 37. Then came the crash of national criticism. The March 30, 1964 issue of Newsweek reported the details of the bill’s passage and said that the Human Betterment Association for Voluntary Sterilization opposed the bill (calling it “shocking”) because it was compulsory. Religious leaders became vocal, and the news of the bill’s provisions was carried in many leading papers across the nation. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) issued a pamphlet, entitled Genocide in Mississippi, which cleary detailed the racial overtones of the bill. Figures on illegitimate births in the state for the year 1962 were cited by backers of the bill to prove the “necessity” of stopping illegitimacy, and as in the earlier Glass proposal, the figure showed a preponderance of Negro illegitimate births (8,203 to 444 whites; 26.1 per cent of all Negro births were illegitimate and 1.6 per cent of all white births were illegitimate).
Under heavy pressure, the Senate relented. The sterilization section was dropped from the bill, and the penalties greatly reduced. In its final form, the bill made it a misdemeanor to become the parent of an illegitimate child, punishable by a sentence of not less than thirty nor more than ninety days in the county jail or a fine of not more than $250, or both. The bill passed and was approved by the Governor, and Mississippi now joined Louisiana in the ranks of those states that make unmarried parenthood a crime.”