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NIH Record

NLM Lecture
Civil Rights Movement's Health Activists Remembered

By Melanie Modlin

When Martin Luther King III spoke at NIH recently at a ceremony marking his father's birthday, he stressed the importance of continuing the late civil rights leader's work for equal rights. King suggested that those included the right to high-quality, affordable health care, and to equal treatment in clinics, hospitals and other medical institutions. He also called for expanded health education and other outreach efforts in minority communities as a way of reducing disparities in the incidence of disease and disability.

Dr. Gerard Fergerson

No doubt King would have enjoyed the National Library of Medicine's African-American History Month lecture, "The Forgotten Radicals: Health Activists and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s." The presentation examined the largely unrecognized efforts to achieve equality and fairness in health care that were under way at the height of his father's civil rights activism.

Dr. Gerard Fergerson, assistant professor of health policy and history at New York University, began his talk by noting that African-American History Month provides "an important cultural space for projects of historical recovery." For this topic from the not-too-distant past, recovery of information proved an unexpected challenge. His review of numerous definitive accounts of the civil rights movement yielded "not one reference to community organizing among health workers in the 1960s, the fight for hospital desegregation, protests against racial covenants in medical teaching and research institutions, or the testimony of health workers at congressional hearings on civil rights bills. Simply, there is work to do."

Fergerson is now doing the work, researching a book to chronicle this missing piece of American history. After considerable digging, he discovered "the largely unexplored activism of the Medical Committee for Human Rights," founded in New York City in June 1964. "A multiracial organization with roots that intersected with other old health Left, as well as local and national civil rights organizations, MCHR was initially formed in response to a call to provide a medical presence to care for civil rights activists who headed south for the 1964 Freedom Summer Project," Fergerson explained. (Freedom Summer brought droves of northerners, many of them young students, to the south to fight for civil rights.) "Membership in MCHR would remain open to members of the health profession and members of the public during the entire period of its existence," he continued. "By the time that the organization disbanded in 1980, it had been instrumental in many anti-racism and social justice activities in health, including calls for better medical care in Mississippi; national appeals to end segregation in medical care; the design and staffing of health clinics (some providing free care by volunteers); protests to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to enforce anti-discrimination statutes; the battle for national health insurance; anti-nuclear activities; and, finally, the general fight to combat poverty and race as barriers to occupational and social mobility and access to health care in society." At its peak in 1971, MCHR had some 40 chapters with more than 20,000 members.

Fergerson discussed how the anti-racism agenda of MCHR had a unique influence on the mainstream civil rights movement, "by offering a critique of social and health status, which highlighted the empirical and material conditions under which Blacks and the poor lived." He also made the case for a "new synthesis" of the history of medicine and the history of civil rights, "to address the important influence of older social and health Left movements on calls for an end to racism and oppression in the health and medical arena."

By early 1965, in the aftermath of Freedom Summer, MCHR had established a firm national foundation for health civil rights work. The organization (and many of its members, who would remain committed champions of equality in the health arena) would embark on a set of significant health activities and social justice projects over the next 25 years, said Fergerson.

And, although the struggle for health equality continues, there are many lessons to be gained from these efforts of three decades ago, he added.

"The need to challenge concepts of governmental intervention, social justice, and racism is perhaps no less pressing in 1998 than it was during the early 1960s," observed Fergerson. "Financial and non-financial barriers to health care access are still chronic problems for our racialized and marginalized urban communities.

"Though the temptation is strong to consign the story of civil rights and health activism solely to the annals of history, because we have won some major battles, we must not give in to this impulse," concluded Fergerson. "The work and legacy of MCHR might provide an inspiration for those who are still concerned with these issues."

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