Review: Rage to Redemption in the Sterilization Age

Eugenics is defined as a movement claiming to improve the genetic features of human populations through selective breeding and sterilization, based on the idea that it is possible to distinguish between superior and inferior elements of society.

This macabre practice is most commonly associated with Nazi Germany. But as John Railey, the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, dispassionately demonstrates in his new book, Rage to Redemption in the Sterilization Age, it is a profoundly American enterprise.

Make no mistake: This is a difficult read, and it should be.

I usually cringe when anyone makes comparisons to the Nazi regime. Theirs was a level of evil unprecedented in the 20th century.

But in the narrative that Railey presents, comparisons to Nazi Germany are not only warranted but a necessity in order to comprehend the barbarism practiced by approximately 30 states in the Union.

Moreover, according to Railey, America's participation in eugenics started before and endured long after the Nazi regime came to an end. In fact, American representatives even provided consultation on eugenics to Germany prior to Nazi application.

Railey's focus is exclusively on the state of North Carolina, a state known for its progressive tradition, especially in comparison with some of its Southern counterparts, and a state led for a time by Terry Sanford, the former governor who in 1963, one week after Alabama's then-Gov. George Wallace declared, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever," was publicly calling on the white people of North Carolina to end discrimination against Negroes.

Sanford's action -- or lack thereof, given his progressive record -- creates a paradoxical tension. Throughout the book, Railey wrestles with the Nixonian question: What did Sanford know, and when did he know it?"

North Carolina operated one of the most aggressive forced-sterilization programs in the nation. It was a program that originally sought to root out a diverse coalition of "undesirables" consisting of poor whites, blacks, Native Americans, the mentally and physically challenged, etc., with "poor" being the operative word. But the program would eventually be engulfed by the Southern mores of the time, becoming myopically focused on poor blacks, particularly poor black women.

Eugenics as a policy in North Carolina began in the dawn of the Great Depression and continued through 1974.

The first portion of the book focuses on North Carolina's eugenics history and Nial Cox. In 1965, Cox became one of 7,600 men, women, and children who were victims of forced sterilization. She would also play a pivotal role in forcing North Carolina to issue an official apology for its actions, along with reparations.

We learn of reporters at the Winston-Salem Journal who in 2002 gained access to records that exposed, for the first time, the inner workings of this eugenics program, which at one time had been backed by their paper. One reporter in particular, Railey, would make victim compensation his cause.

But Railey, whose dogged efforts as a reporter were critical to bringing this story to the surface, reminds the reader that this was systematic cruelty that transcended any good will that reparations sought to address.

It was an arbitrary and capricious process that could have robbed the world of the likes of John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Thelonious Monk, and Ava Gardner, all of whom were born in North Carolina to parents who could have qualified for the eugenics program.

This well-researched book will most likely leave readers in utter disbelief, periodically asking themselves, "How could this occur in America?"

But it is American history. Though certainly not something likely to garner annual commemorations, it is very much a part of the oxymoronic narrative that begins, "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union...."

What Railey has chronicled is journalism at its best -- the embodiment of the fourth branch of government.

I will leave the final comment to Edwin Black, author of War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race, who wrote the foreword of Railey's book. Black writes:

In the final analysis, Railey has raised both hands to lift the bar for all such efforts to follow. In one volume he has chronicled the contemporary history, illuminated the hazy record, and waved the torch of illumination for all to see the way forward. "Never again" is the vow. Compensation is a down payment on the crimes of our past and the caution of our future.