July 7th, 2013

Report Reveals California Illegally Sterilized Women Prisoners

On July 7, 2013, California’s Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that 148 women incarcerated in the California state prison system had been involuntarily sterilized via tubal ligation between 2006 and 2010. Some estimates indicate that 100 additional women were sterilized during the late 1990s and 2000s. Former prisoners report that prison doctors repeatedly pressured pregnant women to consent to sterilization. One doctor asked a pregnant prisoner to consent to sterilization while she was sedated for a caesarian section.

The sterilizations occurred in violation of Federal and California laws placing strong restrictions on the sterilization of incarcerated people because of the danger that a sterilization may be performed without informed consent. California law prohibits sterilization of incarcerated people without approval from the prison system’s central administration but the required approval was not sought in these cases. In addition, federal law prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for the sterilization of prisoners and prohibits doctors from pressuring pregnant women to consent to sterilization during labor or childbirth.

The report is evocative of historic coerced and forced sterilization in California and across America. In California alone, 20,000 people, mostly poor, disabled, mentally ill, members of minority groups, or prisoners, were forcibly sterilized between 1909 and 1964. California was not alone in this practice. Thirty-two states had laws that required sterilization of people belonging to certain groups. The United States Supreme Court upheld the practice as constitutional in its 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell.


July 7th, 1964

Five Days After Enactment of Civil Rights Act, Black Teens Beaten for Ordering at Segregated Lunch Counter in Bessemer, Alabama

On July 7, 1964, nine black teenaged boys entered McLellan’s, a department store in downtown Bessemer, Alabama, that had a segregated lunch counter. Six of the boys took seats in the whites-only section and ordered cherry Cokes. It was five days after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, color, sex, or national origin at schools, workplaces, and “public accommodations.” Adult volunteers were testing the law in restaurants, barbershops, buses and swimming pools across the South.

The Bessemer teens, inspired by Dr. King’s nonviolent campaign in nearby Birmingham the year before, had decided to act on their own—they hadn’t told their parents or planned what to do if they were refused service. After they placed their order, approximately six white men came into the store, blocked the doors, surrounded the counter, and began beating the boys with bats on their backs, arms, and heads. Edward Harris was badly injured and later gave an interview from his hospital bed that was reported across the country. The story quickly disappeared, however, after Mayor Jess Lanier ordered officers from his all-white police department to disperse black protestors. No charges were filed against the men who beat the teens, no arrests were made, and the attackers were not identified.

Five of the teens survived to see the 50th anniversary of their sit-in, but several had suffered long-term emotional trauma stemming from the attack and the discrimination that persisted long after 1964. Tommy Bouyer, who crawled out of McLellan’s as men hit him in the back with bats, said it was “one of the most difficult periods in my life.” He left Alabama the day after receiving his high school diploma. “I had to leave there,” he recalled, “because I felt that if I stayed there, I wouldn’t live under those conditions.” He and his friends “took a stand” that day because “it was something that had to be done,” he said. At age 66, he reflected that things have changed in Bessemer, “but there’s still something in me that hurts.”