In August 2002, Winston-Salem Journal reporter John Railey was part of a team of reporters assigned to a story he couldn’t believe was true. “I was like, ‘No, this didn’t happen in my state,’” he says of his reaction to the thousands of pages of Eugenics Board records that were leaked to the paper. Ten years later, Railey is still on the story.
The records detailed the despicable story of North Carolina’s decades-long eugenic sterilization program, which “sterilized more than 7,600 people, often against their will and on the flimsiest of pretexts,” before its quiet death in 1974. The victims, singled out by social workers as “feebleminded”—a sweeping categorization that included people who were labeled promiscuous, homosexual, and victims of rape—were mostly black and poor. Some were children, others were disabled. Many were coerced or misled into consent. And many were still alive when the Journal stories appeared.
“Against Their Will,” a five-part series published in 2002, had instant impact: North Carolina’s governor at the time, Mike Easley, apologized to the victims. In the months that followed, the state appointed a committee to consider compensation and repealed involuntary sterilization laws that were still on the books. Governors from California to South Carolina were moved to apologize for their own state’s sterilization histories.
But soon the momentum slowed, and the state’s politicians kept kicking the issue down the road. Railey, who became editorial-page editor in 2004, described his efforts to simply keep the story alive as at times a “lonely battle.”
Then, in December 2011, state representative Larry Womble, the compensation movement’s main political ally, was seriously injured in a car accident. Womble survived, but the incident spurred Railey, who was mindful of the soon-to-retire crop of informed and sympathetic state legislators, to step up the pressure for action. He started publishing near-weekly editorials arguing for compensation for victims. He got creative with news hooks, pointing out, for instance, that compensation had been paid almost instantly to families of the 17 Afghan civilians killed in the rampage by US soldier Robert Bales in March.
Some readers—and some journalists—questioned the zealousness of Railey’s pursuit. He is unmoved. “This is about giving voice to the voiceless,” he says. “These people are not a voting bloc; they’re not going to march on Raleigh. Many of them don’t have computers.”
But Railey’s editorials pushed state lawmakers. In June, they were poised to pass a bill that would pay victims $50,000 each (and make North Carolina the first state in the country to do so), until the deal reportedly unraveled as cjr went to press. Regardless, Railey’s persistence and sense of justice deserve a Laurel.
This article has been changed to make clear that Railey was part of a team of reporters that worked on this story, and that the Eugenics Board documents were not leaked to the paper by a state archives worker. They were leaked by a local historian.Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.