The Racist Roots of the War on Sex Ed

JBS-supported billboard accusing Martin Luther King Jr. of communist ties. Image: Bob Fitch photography archive, Stanford University Libraries

The 1960s were a decade of dramatic social and political changes, many of them catalyzed by the shock of assassinations or the dawn of culture-changing technology like the birth control pill.

It would seem, then, that by the end of the decade it would have taken an especially grave development to prompt warnings of a “subversive monstrosity,” a “mushrooming program” that was forced upon an unwitting public through an insidious campaign of “falsehoods, deceptions, pressures, and pretenses.”

The John Birch Society published those words 50 years ago this month in their January 1969 newsletter. What atrocity spurred JBS founder Robert Welch Jr. to write this clarion call? No trigger warning is needed for this one. He was alerting his readers to the “filthy Communist plot” known as sex education.


It wasn’t just premarital and extramarital sex that stirred anxieties. So, too, did interracial sex.


Welch’s alarmist language was common currency in an organization that was known for its anti-Semitism and its espousal of conspiracy theories. They were traits that kept the Birchers’ numbers modest throughout the 1960s and ’70s — an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 members — and led to the group’s decline in later decades. The JBS, a far-right group that advocated for limited government, got its name from a Baptist missionary and military pilot who was killed by Chinese communists — an early martyr of the Cold War.

However fringe they may have been, Welch’s words signaled the beginning of intensive backlash against sex ed among a broader base of conservatives. Within months, that backlash put organizations like the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Medical Association on the defensive. As the debate raged, the NEA sought allies nationwide in churches, civic groups, and the media to save sex ed. By the following year, the NEA was reporting that sex ed programs had been “canceled, postponed, or curtailed” in 13 states and were under scrutiny in 20 state legislatures. Continue reading

Brothers in Arms, Part 4: The Gathering Storm of Patriots and Plainclothes Politicians

This article is our final installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series examined the connections that developed in the 1980s between white supremacists and the anti-abortion movement, which bred a growing extremism and led to the first assassination of an abortion provider in 1993. This installment looks at the threats that developed in the aftermath.

1996 Planned Parenthood publication detailing militia movement links to anti-abortion terrorism

On March 11, 1993, Michael Frederick Griffin approached Dr. David Gunn outside his Pensacola clinic and shot him in the back three times, reportedly shouting, “Don’t kill any more babies!” Griffin, who had been radicalized by former Klansman and anti-abortion crusader John Burt, committed the first assassination of an abortion provider in the U.S. The following year, 1994, saw a record four murders and eight attempted murders by anti-abortion extremists, and more than half of the estimated 1,500 abortion clinics in the U.S. were targets of anti-abortion crimes, such as arson or bombings, in the first seven months of 1994. Although the next two years would see decreases in some types of anti-abortion crimes, clinics have never been free of threats in any of the years since.


Since the 1990s, anti-government groups have stirred racial hatred and anti-abortion extremism on the right.


Just weeks after Dr. Gunn’s assassination, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ended a 51-day armed standoff at a compound in Waco, Texas, the home of a religious cult known as the Branch Davidians. The standoff began in response to reports that the cult was abusing children and stockpiling illegal weapons. The siege ended on April 19, 1993 — 25 years ago this month — when the cult’s leader, David Koresh, ordered his followers to ignite fires that soon engulfed the compound in flames. By the end of the standoff, 75 people had lost their lives.

The federal government’s actions in Waco had overwhelming public support — 70 percent according to a poll conducted shortly after the siege — but to many right-wing activists, who held a deep distrust of the federal government, Waco was a gross display of heavy-handed government intrusion; tyrannical, military-style policing; and violent intolerance of religious liberty. Waco thus became a rallying cry for a growing, militant movement in the political right. Continue reading

Brothers in Arms, Part 3: White Supremacy and the War on Abortion

This article is our third installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series explored the first years after Roe v. Wade, when a fight to preserve school segregation brought together Christian conservatives, who then took on the issue of abortion. This installment examines the connections that developed later between racist groups and the anti-abortion movement in the 1980s, which fed a growing extremism that escalated in the following decade.

KKK members picket Carter campaign office in Alabama, September 1, 1980. Photo: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, courtesy of Georgia State University

The U.S. entered the 1980s with a new political force at work, one that had proven its strength by playing a role in the landslide defeat of incumbent President Jimmy Carter and the election of Ronald Reagan. The religious right had been slow to coalesce in the 1970s, but when it finally did, it became a power that shaped national politics.

What had taken time was trying out — and then abandoning — issues like school prayer and pornography, hoping to find the political lightning bolt that would unite and energize the religious right. When they finally did find their compelling issue, the religious right had a problem: It wasn’t one they could use publicly.


During the Reagan years, there was ample crossover between white supremacist and anti-abortion groups.


Beginning in the 1960s, the South was dotted with private Christian schools that provided white Southerners, many of whom were wary of racial integration, with an alternative to the public schools that were undergoing desegregation. But by the 1970s, those private schools were under attack, coming under the scrutiny of both the IRS and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for their admissions and hiring policies.

The issue brought together key figures in the religious right, like Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones, and Paul Weyrich, and they made it their mission to defeat Carter’s reelection bid, hoping the next president would put the IRS and EEOC on a shorter leash. But to build their movement publicly and nationally, they needed an issue that would stir a broader base of sympathy, branding them as believers instead of bigots. They picked abortion — namely, demanding a constitutional amendment to outlaw it — and they enjoyed a resounding success. Carter refused their demands and lost. Reagan, the candidate they endorsed — and whose party supported their demand in its official platform — won by one of the largest margins in history. Continue reading

Brothers in Arms, Part 1: Racist Anti-Abortion Rhetoric from the Restell Years to Roe v. Wade

Newspaper illustration of Madame Restell in jail, February 23, 1878

This article is our first installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion, from the fears of immigration that fueled abortion prohibition in the late 1800s to the gender-based hatred rooted in today’s white nationalist resurgence.

In the battle over abortion, Kentucky was this year’s ground zero. In Louisville, the EMW Women’s Surgical Center fought to keep its doors open, as a governor, a legislature, and a base of activists — all hostile to abortion — made it their mission to shut the clinic down. For reproductive justice advocates, the stakes were high, as EMW stands as the only abortion provider in Kentucky, the last one in a state that had more than a dozen such providers in the late 1970s.


In the 19th century, opposition to abortion was fueled by racist paranoia.


The situation in Louisville was emblematic of a national phenomenon. In 2011, state legislatures entered a fever pitch, passing new restrictions on abortion, including ultrasound requirements, waiting periods, state-mandated counseling, and prohibitions against telemedicine care and abortion medications. Within a few years, more than 200 restrictions were enacted, and by early 2016, The Washington Post was reporting that 162 abortion providers had closed in their wake.

Boom Years for Abortion

When Ann Lohman first opened her abortion practice, her experience could not have stood in starker contrast to the battle of attrition against regulations and harassment that shutters many of today’s providers. If there were any challenges to keeping her doors open, it was competing with the many other providers who clamored for attention, with advertisements in newspapers, popular magazines, and even religious publications. Lohman’s own advertising budget, to stand out from the crowd, eventually reached $60,000 a year.

Lohman’s experience, like the EMW Center’s, was a sign of the times — but they were very different times.  Continue reading