The following editorial appeared in the July 2012 print edition of Carolina Journal:
The 2011-12 session of the General Assembly squandered an opportunity to address one of the most shameful policies in North Carolina history: the eugenics program, which sterilized thousands of North Carolinians who were considered by state officials to be unfit to have children.
To their credit, lawmakers in the Republican-led General Assembly at least attempted to accomplish something Democratic-led legislatures had not. A measure offering modest compensation ($50,000) to every living victim of the sterilization program passed the state House by a bipartisan 86-31 margin. But the proposal died in the Senate and, at press time, it appeared unlikely to be resurrected before lawmakers go home.
By no means would a $50,000 cash payment serve as full restitution for the indignities our state government imposed on the several hundred victims still living. But it is more meaningful than the apology Gov. Mike Easley offered them nearly a decade ago, and it would acknowledge, in a tangible way, that for decades an official policy of North Carolina was a moral outrage.
A task force created by Gov. Bev Perdue estimated that more than 7,500 North Carolinians were sterilized between 1929 and 1974 under a 1929 law "to Provide For the Sterilization of the Mentally Defective and Feeble-Minded Inmates of Charitable and Penal Institutions of the State of North Carolina." Though most states with eugenics statutes wound down their programs after World War II, North Carolina's sterilizations accelerated. And in the program's latter years, blacks were sterilized at disproportionately higher rates than whites.
The early 20th century Progressives embraced ideas of racial purity and "improvement," and respected groups such as the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation, along with cereal magnate J.H. Kellogg, funded eugenics research and advocacy.
North Carolina passed eugenics laws in 1919 and 1929, and formed a Eugenics Board in 1933 that authorized forced sterilizations "for the public good." Penal institutions and mental hospitals asked the board to authorize the sterilization of individuals; if the individuals did not grant consent, officials would seek to get it from relatives, spouses, or guardians. The final eugenics-related sterilization was in 1974.
In the House, Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, moved forward with a compensation plan even though he did not have the full support of his own party's caucus. Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, also faced some resistance from fellow Republicans -- some saying that Democrats should have provided compensation when they were in charge -- and chose not to adopt the same measure.
For their part, Democrats engaged in cynical gamesmanship, as Sen. Clark Jenkins, D-Edgecombe, introduced a measure providing compensation to victims that he knew would never pass; funding would come from a tax increase that was unacceptable to the Republicans who dominate the upper chamber.
We don't care why the legislature failed to be accountable for this official injustice. It's our hope that the next session of the General Assembly will set aside trivial concerns and begin to close this ugly chapter of our state's history.