On March 25, 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King made the following remarks at a Chicago press conference in connection with the annual meeting of the Medical Committee for Human Rights:
“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice of health is the most shocking and inhuman.”
I have submitted articles in the recent past concerning the programmatic racism that has continued in our healthcare system that has added to today’s healthcare disparities, not only at the point delivery of that care but also in the education and creation of a diverse workforce to care for our communities.
Having just celebrated the life and legacy of MLK at both the traditional MPLS Breakfast and the Governor’s Reception in St. Paul, I felt revived with all of the speeches of uplift and rededication to the causes that drove him, as well as now those seeking the same goals and outcomes today.
Reflecting on that same day in March 1966, Dr. King called for “massive direct action that is needed to raise the conscience of the nation to the segregated and inferior medical care received by Negroes.” Calling for court suits to force doctors and hospitals to comply with the Civil Rights Act, King and officers of the Medical Committee for Human Rights accused the American Medical Association of a “conspiracy of inaction” in civil rights.
King said: “We are concerned about the constant use of federal funds to support this most notorious expression of segregation.” He saw “no alternative to direct action and creative nonviolence to raise the conscience of the nation.”
Dr. John L.S. Holloman, a New York City physician who worked with Dr King, told reporters, “There is scarcely a hospital North or South that does not overtly or covertly discriminate against Negroes. County medical societies, especially in the South, have discriminated in admitting qualified Negro doctors… We put the blame right on their [the AMA’s] doorstep.” The AMA had no immediate comment.
On April 16, 1966, Dr. King formulated a “three-prong assault on hospitals that discriminate against Negroes.” The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) planned to cut off federal aid to hospitals found guilty of practicing discrimination.
Next, civil rights leaders were planning “direct action” against Chicago hospitals that failed to give Negroes equal treatment. And finally, Dr. Holloman would soon assist in federal suits against hospitals that practiced discrimination.
In announcing his “direct action campaign” against Chicago hospital discrimination, Dr. King noted that the Negro infant mortality rate in the city’s poverty-stricken Woodlawn area was as bad as Mississippi’s rate. That is something that has not dramatically changed to this day.
Dr. King asserted that “We must move beyond sending complaints to Washington and act directly.” Though he had not decided what form his “direct action” program would take, he said his committee would gather data and advise and assist people in the South who would formally open the legal campaign.
Subsequently, in relatively short order a government survey of health and welfare service desegregation in the South revealed widespread noncompliance with the law in federally supported programs, some of them run by state and local governments. A survey sponsored by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that almost all Southern state hospitals remained segregated, with the exception of mental hospitals.
So, I pose the question, What would Martin do? He would continue the struggle against healthcare systems that exacerbate disparities at the level of law. In a land where “all men are created equal,” we need to challenge at all crossroads where those obstacles, roadblocks, setbacks, and blatant racist actions exist.