Planned Parenthood offices in New York
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The women’s health organization Planned Parenthood has found itself under assault in recent years. Laws passed in states like Texas, which recently became one of 13 states to ban abortion after 20 weeks, will now shutter many local Planned Parenthood clinics. But as the nearly 100-year-old organization struggles to keep its doors open, it has found a newly invigorated source of support. Black women have begun to emerge as some of the organization’s key spokespeople, decision-makers and leaders.

On Wednesday, media personality Star Jones joined Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards for an off-the-record discussion of reproductive health and Planned Parenthood’s future with a room full of African-American female influencers, including BET President Debra Lee, producer Crystal McCrary and CBS medical expert Dr. Holly Phillips, among others from the worlds of business, media and entertainment. The event was hosted in the home of Alexis McGill Johnson, a former political adviser to Sean “Diddy” Combs and Russell Simmons, who is now chairwoman of the Planned Parenthood board of directors.

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Of her participation, Jones told The Root, “Women’s health is one of my primary issues. I work so hard to make sure women are aware of ownership of our own bodies, and I see everything Planned Parenthood does as connected to women’s health.” She continued, “I know the nation thinks of Planned Parenthood in a very myopic way.” She said that too many people see Planned Parenthood through the lens of providing abortion, which accounts for less than 10 percent of the organization’s services. “When it comes to women’s health, they are the first line of defense for most lower-income women in America,” she said.

The evening marked the latest event in Planned Parenthood’s multiyear campaign to improve its outreach to communities of color. In the last two years the organization has appointed black women to major roles within the organization. Johnson became board chairwoman this year. In January Debra Alligood-White became the organization’s general counsel, while Alencia Johnson took the position of press officer focusing on African-American media in April. She joined Kristi Henderson, who started as director of communications in April 2011. Of the organization’s nine-member executive team, three are now black. They join a number of high-profile black celebrities who are some of the organization’s most visible public faces.

Last year, actresses Nia Long, Gabrielle Union and Aisha Tyler headlined Planned Parenthood events, where they focused on the organization’s role in providing breast exams and other forms of health care for low-income women, many of them black. The organization has also begun incorporating more local chapters on historically black college campuses.

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Though Faye Wattleton became Planned Parenthood’s first—and to date only—black president, serving from 1978 to 1992, the organization has historically struggled with image issues and effective communications strategies in communities of color. This became particularly evident as the “black genocide” movement began gaining momentum and significant media in recent years. In 2011 billboards depicting black children with the tagline “the most dangerous place for African Americans is in the womb” appeared. The organization behind the billboards specifically accused Planned Parenthood of targeting minority communities for genocide.

While some of the racial tension that has engulfed Planned Parenthood in the past can be traced to racial and class divides that existed within the feminist movement, and therefore the reproductive rights movement, the organization’s complicated early history has also made it easy fodder for racism accusations. Margaret Sanger, the organization’s founder, spoke before organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, thus fueling concerns about the organization’s true early motives, particularly in regard to minorities. Though Sanger’s primary message—that birth control and family planning benefit all families of all backgrounds—is widely accepted today, some of her early allegiances continue to cast a cloud over Planned Parenthood and the reproductive rights movement, particularly among black Americans.

According to PBS, “in a cover story for Ebony magazine, popular comedian and activist Dick Gregory spoke for many when he wrote: ‘First, the white man tells me to sit at the back of the bus. Now it looks like the white man wants me to sleep under the bed. Back in the days of slavery, black folks couldn't grow kids fast enough for white folks to harvest. Now that we've got a little taste of power, white folks want to call a moratorium on having children.’ "

PBS went on to note that:

”A significant faction within the black power movement believed that population growth was key to increasing black political strength. At the 1967 Black Power Conference in Newark, N.J., attendees passed an anti-birth control resolution declaring birth control to be the equivalent of black genocide.

"In the summer of 1969, the situation reached a boiling point, moving beyond inflammatory words to actual threats of violence against a Pittsburgh Planned Parenthood office in the African-American neighborhood of Homewood-Brushton. A small, vocal group of men in the black community vehemently opposed the clinic and the dispensing of birth control, especially the pill. Determined to take action, they threatened the clinic with firebombs and riots. In a panic, the clinic shut down.”

But as recently covered on The Root, access to contraception is one of the key predictors for escaping poverty. And laws that limit contraception access hurt poor women more, many of them black women who continue to have the highest rate of unplanned pregnancies of any community. For this reason the fight among employers over contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act, which is headed to the Supreme Court, has become a rallying cry for Planned Parenthood and its supporters. The battle has made Planned Parenthood one of the most visible and prominent political activist groups in the country, and black women have become increasingly crucial to its efforts.

Asked by The Root if having an African-American board chairwoman mattered and helped the organization with its outreach to diverse communities, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards replied, “Absolutely.” She credited, for instance, Alexis McGill Johnson and other board members of color with coming up with the idea for Wednesday’s event. When asked why she felt the event was necessary, Johnson told The Root, “Women of color are leading in so many ways, and I felt it was really important to gather a group of women who have been successful in banking, media and politics, just ideas for how we can use our power to push for the issues we care about. Planned Parenthood is one of those issues.” 

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter