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Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical … – Alondra Nelson – Google Books


3-4 pages

Alondra Nelson
Copyright 2011 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in
a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior
written permission of the publisher.
Published by the University of Minnesota Press
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Minneapolis, MN 55401-2520
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Nelson, Alondra, author.
Body and soul: the Black Panther Party and the fight against medical
Alondra Nelson.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-8166-7648-4 (hc : alk. paper)—ISBN 978-0-8166-7649-1 (pb :
alk. paper)
1. Minorities—Medical care—United States. 2. Discrimination in medical
United States. 3. Race discrimination—United States. 4. Black Panther
Party. I. Title.
RA448.5.N4N45 2011
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
The University of Minnesota is an equal-opportunity educator and
18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For my parents
Introduction: Serving the People Body and Soul
1. African American Responses to Medical Discrimination before 1966
2. Origins of Black Panther Party Health Activism
3. The People’s Free Medical Clinics
4. Spin Doctors: The Politics of Sickle Cell Anemia
5. As American as Cherry Pie: Contesting the Biologization of Violence
Race and Health in the Post–Civil Rights Era
Politics by Other Means
Health is politics by other means.1
Milestones in health and medicine are conveyed as bearing on the
broadest political and social ideals. The recent tenth anniversary of the
decoding of the human genome, for example, brought with it cautious hope
for the progression of genetic science from the lab bench to the bedside.
This scientific landmark was notably accompanied by then president Bill
Clinton’s proclamation that this feat had established “our common
Health is also deemed to embody conceptions of the good society. In
2010 the administration of President Barack Obama ushered in historic
healthcare reform with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. At
the time of its passage, this legislation marked the most sweeping changes
in U.S. health policy since the establishment of Medicaid and Medicare in
1965. The Affordable Care Act, which promised to extend medical benefits
and coverage to tens of millions of previously uninsured and underinsured
Americans, was passed despite heated partisan debates redolent of the
political battles over health policy of the late 1960s. The controversy that
preceded (and then followed) the implementation of the act concerned far
more than bodily well-being. Underlying the impassioned back-and-forths
that pitted accusations of “socialized medicine,” “government takeovers,”
and “death panels” against assertions of “a right to health” and the ethics of
“universal health care” were stark ideological distinctions—Republican
versus Democrat, laissezfaire versus interventionist, libertarian versus
progressive. In other words, healthcare reform was the dialect through
which fundamental political disagreements about the proper function of the
state and the appropriate parameters of business influence were articulated.
Also contested under the banner of health were the very terms of social
inclusion in the United States. While the Obama administration and many
on the left sought to expand the health polity to include those who lacked
medical care, some on the right framed healthcare reform as centrally
concerning the constriction of citizenship. The conservative pundit Glenn
Beck, for example, suggested with a question to his radio audience that
one’s position on so-called Obamacare boiled down to an issue of national
loyalty: “Are you an American or a European?”3 Rush Limbaugh, for his
part, craftily constructed the reforms that would draw the United States
closer than ever before to universal healthcare coverage as benefiting the
few over the many. It was African Americans who would be the
beneficiaries of changes to national health policy, Limbaugh complained to
his listeners, adding that proposed reforms amounted to “reparations” and a
stealth “civil rights act.”4 Healthcare reform discourse was couched in
competing claims about what constituencies mattered, which lives were
valued, and what bodies were deserving of biomedical care.
As revelations of the last few years demonstrated, health and medicine
can be vectors of power, political and otherwise, in further ways.
Questionable scientific practices conducted with vulnerable communities
that have recently come to light make evident this register of health politics.
In 2010 the historian Susan Reverby uncovered the deliberate infection of
Guatemalan men and women with syphilis in the late 1940s by a U.S.
researcher who was also involved with a notorious study of the disease in
Tuskegee, Alabama, that began in the 1930s.5 As with the Tuskegee study,
this Latin American syphilis experiment was undergirded by “racialized
assumptions” that attributed the frequency of the disease among minority
populations to their supposed moral inferiority and biological peculiarity.6
In a somewhat similar vein, the journalist Rebecca Skloot recently and
vividly depicted how a Johns Hopkins researcher surreptitiously
appropriated the fatally prolific cervical cells of Henrietta Lacks, a black
working-class woman who died of cancer in 1951. In the second half of the
twentieth century, Henrietta’s thriving cells became vital to modern science,
even as the Lacks family was devastated, over the same decades, by the
many consequences of her loss.
Reverby’s and Skloot’s revelations compounded an already bleak record
of vexed, uneven encounters between agents and racialized subjects of
biomedicine that the science writer Harriet Washington has characterized as
“medical apartheid.”7 On top of the long history of dubious and often
invidious research with black subjects delineated by Washington, racially
discriminatory practices in medicine have included Jim Crow healthcare
facilities; a formerly segregated medical profession; stubborn health
disparities evidenced by many indices; and “unequal treatment” for blacks
under medical treatment protocols for such conditions as cancer and heart
This cascade of medical discrimination has had far-reaching
implications. Racial health disparities in the United States, for example,
have been shown to persist partly because of African American
communities’ past and continued distrust of the medical system. Owing to
this trepidation, developed over generations in response to abuse, neglect,
and racialization, some blacks are reticent about or even resistant to seeking
necessary healthcare or participating in research studies.9 By way of a
corrective to this shared apprehension—that is quite literally sickening in
result—Washington has bravely proposed that shining a light on medical
apartheid may effect a kind of social catharsis that will “remove barriers
between African Americans and the bounty of the American health-care
Yet in the years after the publication of Washington’s acclaimed book,
occurrences such as the strong resistance in some quarters to the H1N1
virus vaccine, reportedly grounded in fears of maltreatment, suggest that
uncovering past abuse may not in and of itself inspire public confidence in
biomedicine and the healthcare system.11 More pointedly, at a time when
the subjection of marginalized communities to biomedical authority is
attracting renewed attention, the recuperation of moments during which
members of these groups endeavored to shift the balance of power in
medicine may be an effectual counterweight to enduring medical mistrust.
Body and Soul uses one such case to illustrate circumstances in which
African Americans confronted medical discrimination in the healthcare
system, in biomedical theories, and in research design. In doing so, these
communities did not assert a blanket rejection of medicine. Rather, they laid
claim to a critical conception of healthfulness: a right to health equality and
freedom from medical discrimination.
This book began more than a decade ago as a reflection on the intersections
of science and race via the works of Lee D. Baker, Troy Duster, Stephen Jay
Gould, Evelynn Hammonds, Sandra Harding, Dorothy Roberts, Audrey
Smedley, William Stanton, Keith Wailoo, and others.12 In response to this
eclectic body of writing that, very generally speaking, considered the stakes
of racial formation and racial subjugation in and through science, I became
interested in exploring whether and how African Americans responded to
these processes. Given that scientific practices have played (and continue to
play) a key role in constructing ideas of race, were challenges to biomedical
racialization an element of the African American protest tradition? If so, at
what moments and through which tactics did black communities strive to
tilt the balance of authority from researchers and physicians to subjects and
It was with these questions in mind that I began to explore African
American health advocacy in the twentieth century and, eventually, to carry
out research into the Black Panther Party’s health politics of the late 1960s
and early 1970s. Although I had passing knowledge of the Party’s healthrelated activities, delving deeper, I also discovered that the organization’s
endeavors were both more extensive and more multifaceted than I had
imagined. In investigating Party health initiatives, I perceived that its
activism both reflected and amplified the distinctiveness of a tradition of
black health advocacy in which pragmatic matters of disease and healing
(e.g., the founding of health institutions) were coextensive with broader
political matters (e.g., challenges to racism).
In addition, I observed that the Party’s health politics ranged from
practical issues to ideational concerns. The organization’s efforts included
providing basic medical care to the poor, working with lay community
members and trusted professional health workers in alternative facilities
established by the activists. The Party furthermore engaged in public
debates in which they disputed the racial biology of violence and research
studies based on this assumption. And it also boldly advanced suggestions
for how genetic studies of human groups could be refined to avoid
justifying racism. The Party’s health politics was therefore wide in scope
and responded to a broad set of needs. The activists and the communities
with which they worked confronted the paradox of profound healthcare
neglect and disparate biomedical inclusion: poor blacks were not only
medically underserved but also overexposed to the worst jeopardies of
medical practice and bioscientific research. The resulting lack of comfort
and familiarity with preventive medicine and attendant fear of biomedical
abuse remain salient factors contributing to health inequality.
My exploration into the Party’s health activism accordingly yielded
insight into how a segment of African Americans endeavored to gain access
to reliable, affordable healthcare services while placing a check on the
authority and racial claims of biomedicine. This course of research,
however, presented me with some unexpected challenges. Although the
Party’s activities were exhaustively documented in the mainstream and
alternative media of the time, and continued to be accounted for in both
memoirs and scholarship of subsequent years, little of this coverage treated
health-related activities in any detail. This oversight was likely because of
preoccupation with other, more sensational matters. For, as the
communications studies scholar Jane Rhodes suggests, the Party’s activities
were “framed,” for the most, by mainstream press representations that
“focuse[d] attention on selected aspects” of the organization—most
particularly its surveillance of local police and its armed militancy.13 For
these reasons, in the writing of this book, I encountered ample textual and
visual resources about the more spectacular facets of the Party, but
substantially less information about its health politics. Uncovering details
about this element of the Party’s activism consequently required bridging
several fields of inquiry, including sociology, history, and African American
studies, as well as using an ecumenical methodology that combined
archival, hermeneutic, theoretical (and to some degree, ethnographic)
Specifically, Body and Soul draws on primary sources culled from
government documents and official correspondence, state and library
archives, ephemera and personal papers. A survey of the voluminous press
coverage of the Party on broadcast television, documentaries, magazines,
and in mainstream and alternative newspapers was consulted alongside
close reading of the group’s weekly newspaper, the Black Panther.
Launched in 1967, the paper—even in its most propagandistic moments—
provided the most complete record of the Party’s health-related activities
and of the broader political aspirations to which these were linked.14 Some
chapters of the Party occasionally published their own newsletters, and I
made use of these as well.
Secondary literatures in post–World War II African American history,
the long civil rights movement, the social studies of science and medicine,
and social movement theory helped me conceptualize the Party’s health
politics. In addition, in crafting this account, I relied on medical journals
and scientific papers from the 1960s and 1970s. Editorials and essays in
these publications featured scientific and policy debates in biomedicine and
also supplied a glimpse into medical professionals’ perspectives on the
emergence of health radicalism, including that of the Party.
The book draws on my encounters with many former Black Panthers
and their collaborators. Interviews with Norma Armour, Elaine Brown,
Arthur Harrison, Billy X Jennings, Cleo Silvers, Bernard Thompson, and
other Party members contributed crucial details about the practical
operation and political framing of the health-related aspects of the group’s
activism. I also relied on the published oral histories of Party members and
consulted as well several Panther memoirs penned over the last four
decades. In October 2006 I attended the Party’s fortieth-anniversary
gathering in Oakland, California, during which members narrated the
organizational histories of their respective Party chapters. During the telling
of these collective oral histories, the activists expounded on the breadth of
the Party’s health-based programming, among many other matters.
Health and medicine are unique among the bases of collective action for
the degree to which political interventions in these domains may rely on
deep engagement with expertise and, moreover, often necessitates that likeminded members of the professions aid the social movement (even in the
case of those radical health movements in which a critique of expertise is a
centerpiece of the activism). As a result, this book additionally reflects my
interviews with members of the professions who worked in solidarity, and
often shoulder to shoulder, with the Black Panthers. The remembrances of
several Party collaborators—including the attorney Fred Hiestand, Dr.
Marie Branch, Dr. William Bronston, Dr. William Davis, Dr. Terry Kupers,
and Dr. Tolbert Small—elucidated the lay-expert network that undergirded
and facilitated the Party’s health initiatives.
Visiting former locations of Party chapters and clinics in Oakland, New
York City, and Seattle was also instructive. I made trips to sites that remain
as material manifestations of the Party’s activism, such as the Harriet
Tubman Medical Clinic in West Oakland, California, that was established
by Small in the late 1970s and still today serves poor clients in the Bay
Area. I also visited Seattle’s sliding-scale Carolyn Downs Family Medical
Center named for and inspired by the work of a late Black Panther, who in
1968 established the local Party chapter’s clinic at a nearby location. A
novel and more complex picture of the Black Panthers resulted from the
amassing of these eclectic resources.
The progress of the Party’s health activism—from the group’s founding
in 1966 to its reconsolidation in Oakland in the 1970s, after rapid
organizational growth—occurred in the years immediately after the legal
dismantling of Jim Crow, by way of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the
Voting Rights Act (1965). There were concomitant transformations to the
social welfare system, especially the expansion of the United States as a
healthcare state, exemplified by the passage of the Social Security Act
(1965) that installed the Medicare and Medicaid programs. In this same
period, there was an increase in state policies and programs related to
healthcare that issued from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty
along with determined pushback from medical lobbies and the insurance
industry. The antipoverty programs were swiftly followed by cries of a
fiscal “health crisis” from the administration of President Richard M. Nixon
that engaged in austerity politics and enacted severe budget cuts. This time
also saw a “health crisis” of credibility in the early 1970s when revelations
of the Tuskegee syphilis study and the forced sterilization of numerous
black women, including most disgracefully the teen sisters Minnie and
Mary Alice Relf, who were deceived into submitting to surgical
sterilization, came to light.15
From the purview of the Party’s health politics, it becomes possible to,
in the words of the sociologist Charles Tilly, see “how people lived the big
changes” or, put another way, to perceive how ordinary people experienced
these and other pivotal societal transitions.16 It was no coincidence then that
the Party’s health politics (and activism more generally) emanated from a
constellation of consequential social-structural transformations, including
the advent of a postindustrial economy, the slow diminution of the
American welfare state, and the social and legal developments of the civil
rights era that immediately preceded the Party’s birth. At this critical
juncture in the late 1960s and early 1970s, health offered new moral terrain
for a struggle that was no longer typified by the Manichaean inscription of
“whites only” signs and Jim Crow transportation, employment,
accommodations, and schooling, but instead by the vacillation of social
abandon and social control. Through their health politics, the Black
Panthers laid claim to recent civil rights landmarks even as they stridently
exposed the limits of those milestones under late capitalism.
An early instantiation of what might be described as postsegregation
politics, Party health activism also prefigured issues of relevance in the socalled postracial era, most particularly, the significance of race after the
genomic turn and what integration into this “brave new world” proffers for
African Americans given historic vulnerability to biomedical authority.
Shaped by past tragedies, contemporaneous inequality, and future optimism,
by the recognition that biomedicine is both rocky and curative terrain, the
Black Panthers’ politics of health and race exhibited twinned aspirations:
defense against biomedical neglect with hope of attaining full civil, social,
and human rights.
American Medical Association
American Nurses Association
Black Cross Nurses
California Council for Criminal Justice
Council of Federated Organizations
Committee Opposing Psychiatric Abuse of Prisoners
California Prisoners’ Union
California Rural Legal Assistance
Health Policy Advisory Center
Law Enforcement Assistance Administration
Mexican-American Political Association
Medical Committee for Civil Rights
Medical Committee for Human Rights
National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses
National Institutes of Health
National Medical Association
National Organization of Women
National Sickle Cell Disease Research Foundation
National Welfare Rights Organization
Office of Economic Opportunity
People’s Free Medical Clinic
People’s Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation
Students for a Democratic Society
Student Health Organizations
SHO’s Summer Health Projects
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
United Farm Workers Organizing Committee
Universal Negro Improvement Association
U.S. Public Health Service
Serving the People Body and Soul
Over three days in the spring of 1972, the Black Panther Party, the radical
political organization that had emerged in Oakland, California, almost six
years prior, held a Black Community Survival Conference—a gathering that
combined elements of a rally, a street fair, and a block party—in that city’s
De Fremery Park.1 On March 27, standing before a large banner carrying
the slogan “Serve the People Body and Soul,” the Party’s chairman and
cofounder Bobby Seale spoke on a public address system to the assembled
mass of Panther loyalists, political allies, locals, police, and passers-by
about the organization’s slate of free community service programs. These
“survival programs” were established partly to help poor blacks cope with
the surveillance and harassment they experienced at the hands of agents of a
mounting “law-and-order” state. These programs were also intended as a
stopgap solution to the diminished provision of social services by a
shrinking welfare state.
Against a backdrop of barbecuing; children’s presentations on black and
radical history; speeches by members of other activist groups, such as
Johnnie Tillman of the National Welfare Rights Organization; a
performance by the pioneering a cappella group the Persuasions, and other
entertainment, Party cadre and volunteers distributed information about
more than a dozen no-cost community service initiatives, including escorts
for senior citizens to medical appointments, free elementary education at
their school, and a bus service to prisons for visits with incarcerated friends
and family.2 Concurrently, Party rank and file showed Seale’s words in
action, handing out bags of free food and clothing to an appreciative
Bobby Seale addresses attendees to the Community Survival Conference
in Oakland at De Fremery Park in March 1972, at which the Black
Panther Party featured its health programs. Courtesy of Steven Shames
and Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford
University Libraries.
On this same weekend, the Party also held a voter registration drive in
anticipation of its May 1972 announcement of Seale’s and Minister of
Information Elaine Brown’s respective candidacies for mayor and Sixth
District city council seat—on a “Community Survival ticket”—in upcoming
Oakland elections.4 Accordingly, some scholars have interpreted this
gathering and the subsequent survival conferences that occurred that year as
marking the Party’s “deradicalization”—a shift in the organization from
revolutionist to reformist principles and from radical militarist tactics to
mainstream electoral politics.5 Less remarked on, however, is the fact that
this episode was also a signpost of the Party’s health politics.6
At this event, the breadth of the Party’s health-focused activism was
evident: Party members publicized the activities of the People’s Free
Medical Clinics. Party cadre touted grocery giveaways as ameliorating the
malnutrition that often accompanied poverty and thus as contributing to
community members’ healthfulness. Working with their collaborators and
also with volunteers, the activists reportedly screened thousands for sickle
cell anemia—a genetic disease that predominates in persons of African
descent. Moreover, in this same month, Party cofounder Huey P. Newton
and Brown, the group’s chairwoman, amended the organization’s founding
ten-point platform to include a revised point 6, a demand for “COMPLETELY
these activities confirms that the provision and politicization of medicine
was a significantly developed feature of the Party’s broader mission. By
spring of 1972, Party health activism was full-fledged.7
Panther children make a presentation at the Community Survival
Conference. Courtesy of Steven Shames and Department of Special
Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.
Community Survival Conference at De Fremery Park: musical
performers are onstage, and behind the stage are bags of free groceries
to be dispensed at the event, an element of “serving the people body and
soul.” Courtesy of Steven Shames and Department of Special Collections
and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries.
This community survival conference illustrated in microcosm the scope
and ambition of the Black Panthers’ health politics. Given the extent of
these efforts, it is surprising that the Party’s health initiatives have received
mostly passing mention in both scholarly analysis and popular recollection
and have been overtaken in popular memory by the penumbra of debates
about whether the Party’s primary aim and lasting bequest was social
disorder or social transformation. Indeed, the Party’s community service
programs have become ready ammunition in the so-called culture wars of
recent decades. An unfortunate consequence of the tendency to either
pillory or valorize the Party’s activities in a zero-sum manner is that scant
attention has been paid to its considerable engagement with medical and
health concerns. Bellicose critics of the Party’s survival programs dismiss
them merely as attempts by the activists to downplay the organization’s
promotion of violence and shore up its credibility after run-ins with law
enforcement decimated its membership and eroded its public support.8
Equally pugnacious champions of the Party, including several former
members turned memoirists, by contrast, invoke these programs as
reflecting the activists’ true mission and as counterpoints to claims that the
organization comprised nothing more than an assortment of aimless youth
with violent tendencies.9 The historical truth, of course, lies somewhere
between and also beyond these characterizations.
In the mid-1960s the eye of the civil rights storm set course for “freedom
North.”10 To be sure, African American equality struggles had always been
waged both below and above the Mason-Dixon Line. In this period,
however, the spotlight of public attention that had since the 1950s shone
brightest on civil rights activism centered on the South—exemplified by
events like the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott and the Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Freedom Summer project—
shifted to urban centers in the West, Midwest, East, and North. In these
latter settings, resistance to racial and economic oppression was often more
stridently projected, as exemplified by the militant radicalism of the Black
Panthers and the scores of urban rebellions that punctuated the “long hot
summer” of 1967.11 The moral authority that was accorded to opponents of
antiblack southern racism derived in large measure from the Christian
principles that undergirded their nonviolent tactics.12 In the mid-1960s,
when black radicals employed “un-civil” tactics such as armed
confrontation with state authorities and denunciations of state-sanctioned
institutional racism, the issue of health imparted another moral mantle to
their efforts.13
Health was a powerful and elastic political lexicon that could signify
many ideals simultaneously. In settings where racial oppression was more
commonly advanced through social abandon (e.g., nonexistent or
insufficient social welfare programs) and social control (e.g., police
harassment, medical mistreatment) than through staunch Jim Crow
practices, health was a site where the stakes of injustice could be exposed
and a prism through which struggles for equality could be refracted. Health
could also connote inalienable human attributes and freedoms. Martin
Luther King Jr., for example, invoked the idea of health as both a
fundamental and a paramount property of human life during an address
before the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) in 1966. “Of all
forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and
inhumane,” King proclaimed.14 The Black Panthers translated the polyvalence of “health” into practical social programs and political ideology.
Body and Soul is an exploration of why and how health issues, broadly
understood, came to be an indispensible element of the Party’s politics. As
is described here, ideological foundations, historical continuities, and
tactical exigencies precipitated the Party’s commitment to these concerns.
The Long Medical Civil Rights Movement
Seale and Newton established the Black Panther organization in October
1966 to afford protection for poor blacks from police brutality and to offer
varied other services to these same communities. In ensuing years, as the
Party’s ranks quickly swelled in Oakland and beyond, Party headquarters
instituted guidelines for new chapters and members that specified, among
other procedures and practices, the establishment of no-cost communitybased medical clinics (or PFMCs). Mandated by the Party leadership, but
not funded by it, the operation of the clinics depended on the ingenuity of
the Panther rank and file and members’ abilities to mobilize local resources.
At the PFMCs, Panther cadre worked with both lay and trusted-expert
volunteers—including nurses, doctors, and students in the health
professions—to administer basic preventive care, diagnostic testing for lead
poisoning and hypertension and other conditions, and, in some instances,
ambulance services, dentistry, and referrals to other facilities for more
extensive treatment. At the free clinics, the Party also administered
extramedical patient advocacy; Black Panthers and volunteers helped clinic
clients to navigate housing, employment, social welfare programs, and
similar matters. Party health politics also ranged beyond the physical site of
the PFMCs in many ways: the activists conducted health services, outreach,
and education in homes, parks, churches, and other venues. They used vans
and ambulances to take healthcare services out into poor communities.15
The Black Panther leadership also engaged in public debates about the
significance of race for healthfulness and medical care via its newspaper,
interactions with the mainstream media, and the legislative process.
A novel interpretation of the Black Panthers’ mission, trajectory, and
impact becomes available when we shift the focus to their broad healthfocused activities. The fact of Party health politics contravenes accepted
wisdom that neither black activists’ express participation nor their particular
perspectives contributed to the development of the health political
landscape of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Suggestive of this tendency is
a claim ventured by the sociologist Paul Starr in his monumental work, The
Social Transformation of American Medicine. Starr writes that
the civil rights struggle lost its momentum as a protest movement in the seventies, but it set the
example for dozens of other movements of similar purpose. Instead of marching through the
streets, they marched through the courts. And instead of a single movement centered on blacks,
the new movements advocated the rights of women, children, prisoners, students, tenants, gays,
Chicanos, Native Americans, and welfare clients. The catalogue of groups and rights entitled to
them was immensely expanded in both variety and detail. Medical care figured prominently in
this generalization of rights, particularly as a concern of the women’s movement and in the new
movements specifically for patient’s rights and for the rights of the handicapped, the mentally
ill, the retarded, and the subjects of medical research.16
Here Starr suggests that the civil rights and health rights activism of this
period were effectively detached from each other.
Yet African American activism of import did not fade from the political
scene in the 1970s, and black activists of this decade did not precipitate the
degeneration of civil rights struggles. A recent significant wave of research
pioneered by the historian Jacqueline Dowd Hall and taken up by numerous
others has generated a fuller accounting of African Americans’ battles for
equality and has recast standard narratives that draw hard distinctions
between the civil rights and black power movements. This school of
thinking highlights the “long civil rights movement” by recalibrating the
temporality, geography, and scale of the twentieth-century black protest
tradition.17 The civil rights movement did not first emerge after World War
II; it was inaugurated at least several decades earlier through the actions of
not only large social movement organizations like the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People but also local communities’
specific political struggles in both the southern and the northern United
States.18 While the regional, thematic, and tactical focuses of the black
freedom struggle may have evolved over its longue durée, the movement
continued through the 1970s and endures today.
Moreover, “race” was not the wholesale political “metalanguage” of late
twentieth-century civil rights activism, to rework the historian Evelyn
Brooks Higginbotham’s important observation about the hierarchization of
social categories.19 Civil rights activists’ bailiwick included, to varied
degrees, class inequality, fair employment, gender equality, health rights,
and opposition to the Vietnam War. Ella Baker, A. Phillip Randolph, and
the Black Panthers, to name but a few examples, fervently articulated that
economic oppression and racism together placed limited horizons on
blacks’ life chances.20 Similarly attuned to overlapping vectors of
inequality, King Jr., in his capacity as a leader of the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference, in 1967 began planning the Poor People’s
Campaign, an innovative “interracial alliance” aimed at declaring “‘final
victory over racism and poverty.’”21 Fannie Lou Hamer, the iconic vice
chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s efforts to unseat that
state’s exclusively white, pro–Jim Crow delegation to the 1964 Democratic
National Convention, was drawn into activism as a way to overturn the
intersecting system of racial, gender, class, and health inequality that
characterized her experience in the South. She famously used the phrase
“Mississippi appendectomy” to describe the medical oppression of poor
black women who, like her, were surreptitiously sterilized while seeking
treatment for other matters by abusive physicians.22 Activists from
Randolph to Hamer to the Black Panther Party addressed the many sources
of racial injustice. Health politics therefore must be understood as an
important feature of a broader conceptualization of the civil rights
Pace Starr, the battle against Jim Crow was not merely a faded object
lesson for the Party and its health activist contemporaries. Rather, the
struggles for health access and for just distribution of both the benefits and
the harms of biomedicine were a protraction of civil rights struggles in at
least two ways. First, the Black Panthers’ health activism was a signpost in
the long civil rights movement as well as a manifestation of an established
tradition of African American health politics. This legacy was evident in the
Party’s own tactical repertoire that drew on the example of black
communities’ prior responses to health inequality and medical
mistreatment. Health activism was (and remains) a prominent facet of black
political culture. The Party was firmly rooted in a tradition that had
developed during slavery in interface with how bondage, racism, and
segregation affected the well-being of black communities. During the
twentieth century, black health activists fought for access to humane and
equitable medical treatment, from the Progressive Era during which black
leaders endeavored to dispense healthcare services for their communities in
the face of institutionalized Jim Crow by establishing hospitals that, like
disease, did not abide a “color line,” to the 1950s and 1960s during which
reformers staged a “medical civil rights movement” to desegregate medical
schools and workplaces.24 The Party drew practically on the influence of
these prior health activists. For example, although the Panthers’
establishment of independent health clinics was in keeping with the
community control and self-determinist ethics of 1970s black nationalism
(and New Left health activists), this alternative institution building harked
back as well to early-twentieth-century endeavors, such as the “black
hospital movement.”25 In these ways, the Black Panthers employed tactics
that were demonstrably derived from a line of African American health
advocacy that had developed in response to racially segregated medical
institutions and health professions.
Black Panther health politics represented a continuation of civil rights
struggles in a second significant way. Actors and organizations involved in
Party health politics bridged civil rights and health rights endeavors. This is
particularly apparent in the cross-fertilization between the Panthers, SNCC,
and the MCHR. The MCHR, a group of doctors, nurses, students of the
health professions, and others, first came together as medical support for
SNCC’s 1964 Freedom Summer campaign. At this time, the SNCC
leadership included H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, and Kathleen
Cleaver, who would be among the earliest members of the Panther
organization. As described in chapter 1, the Party’s health work extended
directly from the efforts of the SNCC organization. Moreover, members of
the MCHR worked closely with the Party on its health projects in Los
Angeles, Chicago, and other locations to establish and run communitybased health clinics not unlike ones started by SNCC. From an
organizational perspective as well then, the founding of the Party did not
mark the conclusion of the civil rights era but rather its extension. As Elaine
Brown described, the Party did not discriminate between phases of the
black freedom struggle and, indeed, appreciated its continuity: “We never
called it the ‘civil rights movement.’ It was just ‘the movement.’ . . .
Everybody called it ‘the movement.’ Everybody would tell you that. . . . We
never really distinguished ourselves from Martin Luther King; we thought
he was a great hero as we did with Malcolm X, of course.”26
Civil Rights, Health Rights
“A poor man has no medical or legal rights,” a member of the Party
lamented in an issue of the group’s newspaper: “He is a colonized man.”27
As this quote suggests, while Black Panther health activism did not indicate
the twilight of civil rights struggles, it was certainly a referendum on
contemporary social issues. Indeed, the organization’s emergence
responded to the profound dissatisfaction still felt by many African
Americans despite the fact that their civic membership in the United States
had been fortified anew in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting
Rights Act of 1965. For the Party, the reality of urban poverty and structural
racism showed recent civil rights strides at their limits. Moreover, the
persistence of health inequality despite recent improvements only
highlighted the indefatigableness of the systematic social and economic
exclusion of blacks.
The Panther activists apprehended that the provenance of birth was no
guarantee of citizenship, especially for the poor. Despite dramatic
legislative transformation and changes in social mores, citizenship could
remain tenuous for members of marginalized groups. Some recent
observations by theorists of citizenship are instructive for understanding the
dynamics that conditioned this exclusion. For example, the historian Alice
Kessler-Harris and the sociologist Margaret Somers, drawing on the works
of T. H. Marshall and Hannah Arendt, have underscored the fact that
holding civil rights neither guarantees social rights nor precludes economic
oppression, despite legislation or expectation.28 In the twentieth-century
United States, social rights typically emanated from civil rights, so that
individuals could, for example, expect to receive health benefits through
their place of employment. Yet this course of social inclusion has been
unreliable for individuals who are more likely to be under- or unemployed
or whose labor has not traditionally been remunerated (e.g., stay-at-home
mothers and caregivers, “surplus” labor). Kessler-Harris explains that the
provision of rights has “rested on sometimes hidden, normative
assumptions about who ‘cares’ and who ‘works’; who deserves what sorts
of rights; and who required protection from the market,” or, to use Somers’s
words, on ideas about who has the “right to have rights.”29 This gap
between civil rights and social benefits, or this citizenship contradiction, as
I call it, has been especially acute for women and African Americans, who
consequently may be relegated to incomplete and “problematic form[s]” of
citizenship.30 In such instances, individuals are dependent on powerful
institutions, organizations, and others to secure their rights. Alternately,
members of these groups may possess an emaciated citizenship that may be
“conditional on political whim” or the vagaries of the market.31 Returning
to the Black Panthers with Kessler-Harris’s and Somers’s analyses in mind,
we can understand the organization’s health politics as an effort to provide
resources to poor blacks who formally held civil rights, but who by virtue
of their degraded social status and social value lacked social and economic
citizenship and thus the privileges that accrue to these, including access to
medical care. Through its activism, the Black Panthers intended to fulfill a
most basic human need (i.e., medical treatment) while insisting on a full
measure of social inclusion for the black urban poor.
In the late 1960s, with social citizenship decoupled from civil rights,
despite recent changes in U.S. political culture, the Party exposed the
citizenship contradiction facing poor black communities and demanded
rights on their behalf. The Panthers regarded healthcare as “a right and not a
privilege,” as did many other health radicals of this period and as had prior
reformers and activists.32 More proximate to the Black Panthers was the
capacious idea of a right to health elaborated in the 1948 constitution of the
World Health Organization, underlain by the United Nations Universal
Declaration of Rights formalized in the same year, which affirmed the
“inherent dignity” and “inalienable rights” of all human beings.33 The
WHO, the UN entity tasked with coordinating global health issues,
advanced a robust definition of health as both a basic and a universal right:
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and
not merely the absence of disease or infirmity . . . health is one of the
fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race,
religion, political belief, economic or social condition.”34
In developing its health politics, the Party borrowed liberally from the
WHO charter. Given that in the Party’s original ten-point platform of 1966,
the activists requested assistance from the UN to create an autonomous
political community, or “plebiscite,” it is perhaps unsurprising that the
Party’s expansive definition of health would be appreciably indebted to that
of the WHO. In an article in its newspaper touting the group’s free medical
services, for example, the Panthers declared that it is “the government’s
responsibility to provide its people with this right [to health] and other basic
human rights.”35 Also following the UN body, the activists defined health
as “a state of physical, social and mental wellbeing” and “one of the most
basic human rights of all human beings.”36 Holding a conception of health
that included many registers of wellbeing, the Black Panthers were
understandably disaffected by recent narrow civil rights gains.
Building on the WHO’s assertion of health as a universal right as well
as traditions in both African American culture and leftist thinking that drew
together iatric and social well-being, the Party developed a distinctive
perspective and approach that I term “social health.”37 With the phrase
“social health” I mean to characterize the activists’ efforts on the terrain of
health and biomedicine as being oriented by an outlook on well-being that
scaled from the individual, corporeal body to the body politic in such a way
that therapeutic matters were inextricably articulated to social justice
ones.38 The Party’s social health position reflected its particular
understanding of the history of racial subjugation and its commitment to
social equality combined with a Marxist-Leninist critique of the “medical–
industrial complex”—health radicals’ term for the confluence of business
interests, the medical profession, the insurance industry, and pharmaceutical
companies that drove the commodification of healthcare.39
The Party’s social health “frame” was also distinctly elastic.40 In
addition to allowing the fashioning of metonymy between individual illness
and social dis-ease, the elasticity of the social health perspective allowed
the Party to advance alternatives to mainstream explanations for why
certain diseases, like sickle cell anemia, persisted among black populations
and to suggest why these communities were disproportionately depicted by
biomedical researchers as the loci of disease and pathology. As a praxis,
social health linked medical services to a program of societal
transformation. The Panthers’ clinics, for example, were imagined as sites
of social change where preventive medicine was dispensed alongside both
extramedical services (e.g., food banks and employment assistance) and
ideology via the Party’s political education (PE) classes. Reflecting many
influences, social health was the frame for the Panthers’ engagements with
biomedical knowledge and a guiding principle for the group’s health
initiatives. It was an articulation of the Party’s unique critical discourse of
citizenship and health rights.
Health Crisis
The Party’s focus on health and medicine was impelled by several factors,
described in the chapters to follow, including its founding political ideology,
the influence of prior African American health activism, internal
organization dynamics, and state repression. The Party’s activism was also
notably au courant. Its health politics intensified at a time when healthcare
was at the forefront of political and policy debates in the United States
(alongside desegregation and the implementation of recently passed civil
rights legislation, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the
failing Vietnam War). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was general
agreement in the United States that the country was in the midst of a
healthcare “crisis.”41 During this time, crisis discourse was taken up by
austerity hawks who complained that state-sponsored healthcare coverage
strained the federal government’s resources to the limit, and by welfare
statists on the left, who pointed to the exigencies of a profit-driven medical
system as the culprits. The Party also took up this health crisis rhetoric. For
the Panther organization, and other health radicals, the emergency lay at the
nexus of rising health inequality, deficient medical care, and waning
confidence in a medical profession that was unaccountable to its patients.
Moreover, for the Panthers, the crisis was also due to the fact that blacks
disproportionately suffered ill health and poor medical treatment. These
realities, the activists insisted, were corporeal manifestations of the
vicissitudes of urban poverty in the United States.
As I detail below, varied political camps—including two presidential
administrations, professional associations, and health activists—advanced
diverse diagnoses of and remedies for the crisis. In 1965 President Johnson
established Medicare and Medicaid—government health insurance for the
elderly and the disabled and the poor, respectively—when he signed into
law the Social Security Act of 1965, as a cornerstone of his Great Society
model, which enlarged the federal government’s role in healthcare and other
social welfare programs. In this same year, partly following the example of
Freedom Summer—SNCC’s and the Council of Federated Organizations’
two-month campaign to register and empower black voters, during which
“Freedom Schools” and “Freedom Clinics” were also established in Jim
Crow Mississippi—the Johnson administration began a community clinic
program in an effort to provide healthcare to the poor.42 This initiative,
funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity, mandated the “maximum
feasible participation” of local communities in administering the clinics.43
Within a few years of the passage of the Social Security Act, there were
pitched battles over proposals to federally fund universal healthcare
coverage that pitted the conservative President Richard Nixon, the
American Medical Association, and other medical industry lobbyists
against the health reformer and Democratic senator Edward M. Kennedy,
labor unions, and health activists of mixed political provenance. Healthcare
for workers was fundamentally transformed when Nixon signed into law
the Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973. A centerpiece of his
administration’s national health strategy, this legislation required businesses
with more than twenty-five employees to supply both indemnity and
healthcare insurance coverage to their workers and primed the pump of the
managed care system by supplying government-backed grants and loans to
qualified health maintenance organizations.44 Moreover, with this plan the
Nixon administration could appear to respond to calls for medical care in
the United States to be made more affordable and accessible, without
acceding to demands for state-sponsored universal healthcare that surpassed
the coverage provided by Medicaid and Medicare.
Activists, too, were conversant in the political rhetoric of the health
crisis.45 In diametric contrast with the Nixon administration and healthcare
lobbyists who were committed to the continued commodification of
medical care, health radicals—a coterie that included the Black Panther
Party, health workers such as the MCHR and the Student Health
Organization (SHO), and the New Left–oriented Health Policy Advisory
Center (or Health/PAC)—understood the most acute aspect of the crisis to
be the proliferation of a capitalist medical system that produced and
exacerbated inequality. The Chicago Black Panther Party minister of health
Ronald “Doc” Satchel’s complaint in the pages of the Black Panther that
“the medical profession within this capitalist society . . . is composed
generally of people working for their own benefit and advancement rather
than the humane aspects of medical care” typified this activist argument.46
The health Left often parted ways with liberal reformers, such as Senator
Kennedy, who believed that mainstream medicine could be made more
equitable. For these radicals, a for-profit healthcare system was
fundamentally and inherently flawed. Accordingly, they took no succor in
the proliferation of the medical–industrial complex—even in a liberal guise.
Health activists, moreover, pointed to the consequences of the skewed
health status quo as further evidence of the crisis: legions of people suffered
medical neglect, they declaimed. Healthcare options available to the poor
were often either deficient or too expensive and thus inaccessible. The
elderly and impoverished people who received federal healthcare assistance
in the form of Medicare and Medicaid, activists protested, were too
frequently subject to substandard care. What is more, persons without any
insurance coverage whatsoever might receive slipshod treatment in the
emergency rooms of large, often dilapidated, public medical facilities.
Writing on behalf of the Party, Elaine Brown voiced this objection in a 1974
dossier describing the organization’s service programs. “Private hospitals
and doctors charge fees more expensive than poor people can afford,”
Brown declared, “while public hospitals and clinics are so overcrowded and
understaffed that their services are almost totally inadequate.”47
Those with access to healthcare often experienced the medical
encounter as coercive and authoritarian, especially if they were poor,
female, institutionalized, or members of minority groups.
Disproportionately incarcerated blacks and Latinos were subject to medical
abuse and experimentation, perhaps most notoriously at Pennsylvania’s
Holmesburg Prison from the early 1950s to the early 1970s.48 Further, the
circulation of prisoners’ and patients’ accounts of “being ‘treated like
animals’”49 at these “butcher shops”50 and “butcher houses”51 —some
actual, many apocryphal—eroded public faith in mainstream medicine.52
As a June 1970 newsletter published by the Los Angeles–based, Southern
California chapter of the Black Panther Party put it, “Poor people in general
and black people in particular are not given the best care available. Our
people are treated like animals, experimented on and made to wait long
hours in waiting rooms.”53 That this accusation was warranted was
confirmed for many skeptics after the New York Times’s disclosure in 1972
of the four-decades-long Tuskegee syphilis study in which close to four
hundred African American men were left untreated for the disease so
researchers could observe its ravages on the human body.54 This
controversy generated considerable public outrage and distrust on the part
of poor and minority communities as well as the larger population.55 From
politicians, to the Party, to the general public, there was acute awareness of
the health crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Chapters Ahead
The Panthers were heirs to a mostly uncharted tradition of African
American health politics. In chapter 1 I draw out this tradition from the long
civil rights movement. I demonstrate and argue that health advocacy,
variously conceived, has been a deep-rooted concern of black political
culture, across the range of institutions, community organizations, and
social movements that constitute this protest tradition. Spanning the period
from 1880 to 1965, the chapter links up the Party’s efforts with a line of
health advocacy that was the necessary response of black communities to
the myriad forms of health inequality to which they were subject for
generations, including lack of access to healthcare resources; exclusion
from whites-only hospitals; refusal of admission to professional schools,
associations, and organizations; subpar medical care; and, in some
instances, deliberate neglect and medical abuse. The Party’s social health
approach was indebted to an earlier “relationist” paradigm through which
“clinical and socioeconomic factors . . . explain[ed] . . . sickness in the
individual black [person] as well as the black community generally.”56 In
addition to this relative definition of well-being that went beyond strictly
biological concerns, Panther health activism shared with prior efforts a
critical engagement with the construction of race in medicine, or what the
historian David McBride terms “sociomedical racialism.”57 The Panthers
were also bequeathed a legacy of tactical responses to racialized health
inequality, including institution building, integrationism (or
antisegregationism), and the “politics of knowledge.”58
Front cover of the August 1972 issue of the Black Panther, declaiming the
Tuskegee syphilis study. The Black Panthers’ health activism unfolded
against the backdrop of African American fears of medical mistreatment.
Courtesy of It’s About Time Black Panther Party Archive/Billy X
Party health activism was, at the same time, characteristic of the milieu
of the late 1960s and early 1970s; it was an outgrowth of contemporary
political currents and of its own organizational evolution. How and why the
survival or “serve the people” programs came to play a central role in the
Panther organization is explored in chapter 2, focusing in particular on a
confluence of factors that precipitated the evolution of its health politics.
Attention to community service was an expression of Party founders’ initial
commitment to the dual deployment of theory and practice in response to
their frustration with what they deemed black cultural nationalists’
preoccupation with rhetoric and the limitations of War on Poverty
programs. The Party’s community service orientation was thus forged
between and in reaction to what the activists regarded as ineffective
rhetoric, on the one hand, and paternalistic social initiatives, on the other.
Serving the people was also a pragmatic matter for the Party by 1968.
Between January 1968 and December 1969, at least twenty-eight Panthers
were murdered in confrontations with police.59 Within the first few years of
the Party’s emergence, it became subject to repressive police power that
decimated its membership with fatalities and incarceration and jeopardized
its popular support.60 The ideas of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Mao Zedong,
and Frantz Fanon provided a conceptual bridge between the Party’s political
philosophy, its community service ethos, and its health politics. These
theorists’ influence could be seen in how the Party afforded an integral role
to medicine in its imagination of a “robust” social body: in its valorization
of lay expertise, in its critique of “bourgeois” healthcare and medical power,
and in its aim to foster medicine for and by “the people.”61
The administration of the Party’s locally controlled, alternative health
clinics, including how they were staffed, supplied, and operated, is the
focus of the third chapter. “Serve the people body and soul” was a familiar
Black Panther aphorism, one that lyrically signaled the group’s total
dedication to its constituencies. This saying took on a decidedly literal
meaning after the Party leadership’s 1970 mandate that all current and
future chapters institute health clinics.62 Although concern for the health of
poor and black communities was intrinsic to the Party’s founding principles,
and several chapters, including those in Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles,
had already established PFMCs, this directive marked the beginning of a
more coordinated effort.
The Party was not only a standard-bearer of the black power movement.
It was also a significant “health social movement”—that is, an organization
that challenged health inequality, in this case, by supplying access to
medical services, contesting biomedical authority, and asserting healthcare
as a right.63 The Panthers were indeed a significant faction in the radical
health movement of its era. As health activists in the late 1960s and early
1970s, Party members labored alongside feminist groups; hippie
counterculturalists; leftists such as Students for a Democratic Society and
Health/PAC; politicized medical professionals and students, including the
SHO and the MCHR; and the Party’s allies in the “rainbow coalition,” most
notably the Young Lords Party.64 This multifaceted community—the radical
health movement—was a decentralized aggregate of groups, collectives,
and organizations with distinct missions that sought to transform medicine,
institutionally and interpersonally.
These collaborations were critical to the functioning of the Party’s
clinics. In keeping with the era’s DIY spirit, the activists enacted the better
world they imagined by establishing their own independent healthcare
initiatives and institutions. The radical health movement modeled practices
that, in the words of some Bay Area radicals, valued “Health Care for
People Not Profit.”65 This mission was frequently manifested in activist-run
no-cost or low-cost clinics, such as the PFMCs established by the Panthers.
Consistent with the period’s antiauthoritarian zeitgeist, at these alternative
institutions the activists empowered patients to have a voice in the medical
encounter and encouraged laypeople to claim the mantle of expertise by
taking a hand in their healthcare—and, sometimes, in producing medical
knowledge as well. The democratization of both medical practice and
knowledge in the clinic setting was a tactical cornerstone of the Party’s
health politics.
In addition to being brick-and-mortar embodiments of the Party’s health
politics, these clinics were sites where the Party’s political ideals were
translated into social practice by providing free basic care and advocating
on behalf of patients. The Party provided healthcare services to populations
who lacked them. The clinics addressed local needs, reflected local
priorities, and drew on and mobilized local resources. The work of these
chapter-based institutions did not end with providing health services. The
clinics were exemplars of the Party’s commitment to the total well-being of
its constituents. A person entering a Party clinic might also receive help
from a “patient advocate” with paying bills or dealing with a problematic
landlord; this individual might also be encouraged to attend a political
education class in which writings by Fanon and other theorists were
discussed. In this way, the PFMCs were sites for social change.66
The Panthers’ health clinics were also bases of operation for its sickle
cell anemia campaign. Chapter 4 details the Party’s efforts to highlight the
problem of this disease, an incurable genetic condition. Its campaign,
launched in 1971, was both practical and ideological. In response to what
they perceived as deliberate and pernicious neglect of African American
citizens by the healthcare state, the Panthers established their own genetic
screening programs. The Party also initiated health education outreach and
disseminated information about the disease to black communities via the
Black Panther and other media outlets, pamphlets, and public events. In this
process, medical jargon about sickling was translated into terms
comprehensible to a general audience. It was also translated into political
analysis. Framed in a social health perspective, the Party explanation for the
disease’s persistence emphasized the history of racial slavery, contemporary
racism, and the inadequacies of profit-driven healthcare.
With its clinic network and the sickle cell anemia initiative, the Party
worked to ensure the health of black communities by providing needed
services. In another initiative, described in chapter 5, Newton led the Party
and a coalition of activists to shield the impoverished, the incarcerated, and
otherwise vulnerable populations from becoming biomedical research
subjects. In 1972 and 1973 Newton, working with the progressive attorney
Fred J. Hiestand and allied activists drawn from the civil rights, women’s,
and labor movements, successfully challenged the establishment of the
proposed Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence at the University
of California at Los Angeles. The center was planned with a
multidisciplinary slate of research programs that were variously dedicated
to investigating the origins of violent behavior, including a highly
controversial project that hypothesized individual diseased brains as the
source of violence and proposed invasive surgery as a method of behavior
modification. This chapter describes the Party’s manifold arguments against
the center, particularly its opposition to the biologization of violence that it
believed would inevitably result from research linking behavior with race
and disease. In keeping with its social health perspective, the Panthers
articulated an alternative etiology of violence that privileged social
causation (e.g., racial oppression, poverty, reaction to state aggression) and
defined violence as a social phenomenon rather than a biomedical one.
In the conclusion, I summarize the scope of the Party’s activism and
consider its implications for how we historicize and theorize health
inequality. The Party attended to how poor black communities were both
underserved by and overexposed to the medical system. Accordingly, its
health politics displayed two interrelated emphases: demands for healthcare
access and for emancipation from “medical apartheid.”67 The Panthers and
their allies endeavored to remedy the lack of access to medical services for
members of marginalized groups by supplying basic preventive care at its
free clinics. The Party additionally sought to shield these same communities
from the excesses of biomedical power, such as the clinical research and
medical experimentation described in recent poignant books by Rebecca
Skloot and Harriet Washington.68 With its initiatives and interventions, the
Party endeavored to provide a check on the healthcare state, protecting poor
and black communities from neglect owing to a lack of access to healthcare
services and from potential abuse from exposure to biomedical power.
Importantly, vocal as they were in bringing attention to the potential for
discrimination and abuse in medicine, the Panthers’ own foray into
providing healthcare and health advocacy reveals that the group, while
skeptical of mainstream medicine, was not antimedicine. The activists
appreciated that biomedicine was necessary and could be put to useful
purposes if it was loosed from market imperatives and carried out by trusted
The Party enacted a calculated politics of health and race in which
theories of human difference were strategically jettisoned and espoused
toward select ideological ends. In some instances, the Panthers strategically
deployed scientific claims about African Americans and black bodies to
support their larger ideological aims. For example, with its sickle cell
anemia campaign, the Party repurposed evolutionary theory to argue that
this genetic disease was an embodied vestige of slavery and colonialism. At
other times, the activists rejected biological theories about race and the
“nature” of communities of color as they did in their campaign to put down
UCLA’s planned “violence center.” Thus squarely at the center of the
Panthers’ health politics were claims about the scientific, medical, and
political significance of blackness and racism, about how and when the
concept of race could be legitimately deployed.
In this way, the Party’s activities offer some possibilities for thinking
anew about contemporary debates over issues of health inequality. This
account of the Party offers insight into how black communities sought
health rights and attempted to challenge invidious forms of biomedical
racialization; it also foreshadows contemporary debates about racial health
disparities and links between genetics and disease identity.
The Black Panthers’ health politics suggests why today some African
Americans hold a complex and critical perspective that recognizes the
particular vulnerability of blacks as patients and research subjects yet still
demand participation in the healthcare system. We can see the beginnings of
what the sociologist Steven Epstein describes as the “inclusion-anddifference paradigm” emerging in the 1970s.69 For Epstein, this paradigm
partly reflects the outcome of women’s and minorities’ successful
campaigns for access to biomedicine’s beneficial possibilities at the expense
of acquiescence to categorical (read: racial) claims about human difference.
Epstein demonstrates that civil rights discourse and affirmative action
rhetoric were important to this transition. The Party story detailed here, in
highlighting how health rights claims of the late 1960s and early 1970s
were an extension of proximate black freedom struggles, suggests how civil
rights discourse (if not civil rights themselves) would and could be an
essential avenue through which many African Americans were incorporated
into mainstream medicine.
At the same time, by illuminating the interdependency between civil
rights activism and health social movements, this book deepens our
understanding of collective action more generally. The account of the
Party’s activism detailed here is of consequence for how we understand
“health social movements” and their burgeoning in the last three decades of
the twentieth century. Black health activism in this period did not
necessarily augur the emergence of “new social movements” or mark the
decline of more recent antiracist activism. To the contrary, it represented an
evolution of the civil rights movement. Consistent with sociological
scholarship on “social movement spillover,” the Party’s influences and
collaborations suggest how civil rights and health rights claims were
mutually constituted (and how health activism proliferated with a civil
rights frame).70 More particularly, health rights activism of the 1960s and
1970s was an extension of the push for equal liberties and an effort to
bridge the stubborn gap that separated civil and social citizenship.
Between its founding in 1966 and its formal end in 1980 (on the
occasion of the closing of its Oakland elementary school), the Party blazed
a distinctive trail in U.S. political culture, linking health to its vision of the
good society. Its lasting significance is perhaps most robustly manifest in
Panther iconography—in the symbol of the black panther borrowed from
civil rights activists in Lowndes County, Alabama; in Minister of Culture
Emory Douglas’s idiosyncratic political art; in the graphic identity the
organization established with its newspaper; and the many photographs that
captured the countenance and posture of its fresh-faced yet knowing
leaders. Although the Panthers’ politics of health and race is a seemingly
more ephemeral legacy, it endures in the commitment of health activists
today, both former Party members and those inspired by them; in the
persistence of community-based healthcare in the face of medical
inequality; and the idealism that a right to health might be assured.
In 1962 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,
the leading and largest civil rights organization of the twentieth century,
filed suit on behalf of a group of African American medical professionals
and their patients in opposition to “separate but equal” medical facilities, in
hopes of toppling the edifice of racism, improving healthcare for blacks,
and according a modicum of dignity to those most likely to treat them. A
centerpiece of the “medical civil rights movement,”1 this initiative was
spearheaded by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and two
members of the faculty of the Howard University Medical School, the
physicians Paul Cornely and W. Montague Cobb. Cobb was, at this time,
head of the NAACP’s National Health Committee and a member of its
board of directors. Editor as well of the Journal of the National Medical
Association (JNMA), the periodical of the professional organization for
African American physicians, Cobb used that publication as his bully
pulpit, driving home his argument that black doctors should not acquiesce
to medical Jim Crow.2 Encouraged by Cobb’s intrepid editorials, and the
recent Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court
decision that outlawed separate-but-equal public schools, the plaintiffs, a
group of black doctors, dentists, and patients in Greensboro, North
Carolina, launched a successful challenge to segregation in state-funded
medical institutions.3 The resulting Simkins v. Moses H. Cone Memorial
Hospital decision handed down in 1963 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for
the Fourth Circuit (and later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court), outlawed
the practice of segregating hospital staff and wards by race in all facilities
receiving public monies.4 Although the Simkins medical desegregation case
is less well-known than Brown v. Board, it is a reminder that health activism
was intrinsic to the long civil rights movement, despite the fact that the
topic is often marginal to histories of the black freedom struggle.5
In this chapter, I mine some of this little-known yet extensive history of
African American health-focused activism as necessary context for
understanding the Black Panthers’ health politics.6 While the battles in
which the Party was engaged were specific to its time and ideological
commitments, they were also in keeping with how black Americans had, for
generations, responded to the life-or-death stakes of racialized health
inequality. This chapter surveys signal moments of the long civil rights
movement and excavates from within this arc of protest what might be
termed the “long medical civil rights movement,” a parallel tradition that
took health as its focus. Mobilized in response to the distinctly hazardous
risks posed by segregated medical facilities, professions, societies, and
schools; deficient or nonexistent healthcare services; medical maltreatment;
and scientific racism, activism challenges to medical discrimination have
been an important focal point for African American protest efforts and
organizations. The Panthers were heirs to health activism that directly
reflected tactics drawn from this tradition. Its health politics, which
combined attention to practical needs with a reframing of the definition and
stakes of black well-being, were deep-rooted in African Americans’ prior
responses to health inequality, including principally the following:
institution building, integrationism (or inclusion), and the “politics of
Institution building refers to the establishment of parallel facilities,
alternative health initiatives, and autonomous organizations to compensate
for a paucity of accessible healthcare options. As the historian of medicine
David McBride describes, the black experience in the United States has
been punctuated by epidemics, including tuberculosis and cholera owing
not only to disease agents but also to poverty, healthcare inequality, and
racial segregation.8 In each case, the human, scientific, and capital
resources allocated by public health agencies to curb these epidemics were
often insufficient. In the early twentieth century, philanthropic organizations
such as the Julius Rosenwald Fund helped fill this void—if only to protect
white communities from the supposed scourge of black contagion. These
efforts notwithstanding, adequate healthcare accommodations and services
for blacks remained severely lacking throughout the twentieth century.9
African Americans founded hospitals in underserved black communities,
inaugurated public health initiatives, and established schools to train black
medical professionals.10 Given the long shadow of and neglect cast for
decades over African American well-being, reformers and activists
unsurprisingly worked to establish alternative avenues for delivering
healthcare services and health education to black communities.
The desegregation of the healthcare system and the medical profession
was a central aim of African American health activism. Integrationism was
the organizing principle of black health advocates for much of the twentieth
century and a second important tactic. This position was ardently endorsed
in the writings and speeches of W. E. B. Du Bois and other leading black
thinkers who insisted on blacks’ right to full inclusion and participation in
U.S. society—including its health-care institutions. Health integrationists
aimed to desegregate medical institutions, including professional
associations, hospitals and clinics, and schools and training programs. They
pushed for comparable and shared facilities and services for black and
white medical practitioners and patients. They believed that African
Americans’ full inclusion in the healthcare state offered the best hope for
reducing rates of mortality and morbidity in black communities. These
health activists used the legal system to force open the doors of hospitals to
black patients and challenged the medical establishment gatekeepers who
placed a “color line” on the possibility of professional development for
black doctors, nurses, and other medical workers. More idealistically, this
tactic pushed U.S. society to live up to its egalitarian claims in the domain
of health.
A third tack taken by black health activists was “the politics of
knowledge.”11 Understanding that the creation of knowledge about black
bodies in medicine was often an ideologically charged process, health
advocates also deployed the politics of knowledge, the pursuit of
intellectual projects, and conceptual interventions that in varying degrees
challenged medical authority and disrupted biomedical racialization.
Activists reinterpreted scientific findings, conducted independent research
programs, and employed social scientific analysis to demonstrate that
racism, not rationality, was at the root of scientific claims about the alleged
inherent inferiority of African Americans.12 Those using a politics of
knowledge approach often worked to forge connections between biological,
social, and political spheres of life in response to the scientific determinism
of some biomedical theories.13 This tactic opened the way for black wellbeing to be assessed in the context of issues of social justice and racial
equality—a course that was reflected in the Party’s health politics and its
social health perspective.14
The use and significance of the tactics of institution building,
integrationism, and the politics of knowledge in the African American
health activism tradition are elaborated below. To some degree, the Black
Panthers made use of all of them. They created alternative spaces for the
healing and medical training of blacks. They demanded inclusion and racial
equality in medicine. And they posed epistemological challenges to
biomedical claims about race.
Institution Building
African American activists’ responses to the dynamics of racism in the
health professions and in medical institutions took many forms partly
because the health needs of black communities were often so great.
McBride notes that the abominable health status of blacks underwent “scant
change” in the many decades from “the late slavery era to the start of the
Great Depression.”15 “Excess black mortality and morbidity” remained
constant even in “periods when medical care technology and political
integration, or both, [were] advancing,” McBride continues.16 Thus, even as
social conditions gradually improved for African Americans, their health
status remained excessively compromised compared with whites.
In the face of epidemics and other health crises that disproportionately
affected them, black communities had little choice but to provide their own
solutions to what ailed them. Grassroots efforts to develop healthcare
facilities, public health education, and educational institutions—frequently
collaborations between communities and medical professionals—were one
solution. Institution building also entailed disseminating health education to
black communities, many of which, owing to both tradition and racial
exclusion, had little experience with, or faith in, mainstream public health
systems. Because of the wide impact that forms of medical segregation had
on African American populations, their response was similarly extensive;
health activists not only aimed to increase black communities’ access to
healthcare services but, in some instances, also provided otherwise scarce
training and employment opportunities for black health professionals.
Black communities played crucial roles in institution building: although
physicians and race leaders often served as figureheads and visionaries,
efforts to provide healthcare services were often funded and administered
by dedicated laypeople working to improve the welfare of their
communities. In addition, activists established public health campaigns to
provide instruction on such issues as sanitation and hygiene and to
disseminate information central to eradicating diseases that
disproportionately plagued black communities.
Some alternative institutions were established through the collaborative
efforts of black doctors and nurses. Yet for the most part, this institution
building could not depend on black professionals solely because, for much
of the twentieth century, there were too few of them. Accordingly,
laypeople—including club women, community organizers, and churchgoers
—played a crucial role in devising ways to stretch their communities’
professional resources and in confronting health inequality. Through
donations of time and labor, black health activists established healthcare
institutions and educational campaigns. In particular, these efforts were
often organized by women working through both sacred and secular
institutions such as social clubs.17 Just as in the black protest tradition in the
American South in which the “men led but women organized,”18 these
institution-building activities often had a gendered division of labor.19 This
was especially true of Progressive Era black health activism, during which
the caring burden landed on black middle-class women committed to
improving community health, and who filtered this concern through the
prevailing imperatives to nurture and uplift the race, alleviate poverty, and
promote high moral standards.20
Progressive Era Institution Building: Provident Hospital and Booker T.
The labors of black women health activists, for example, were foundational
to the creation of Provident Hospital and Nurses’ Training School in
Chicago at the initiative of Daniel Hale Williams. Williams, a cofounder of
the National Medical Association (NMA)—the African American
physician’s association formed partly in reaction to the segregated practices
of the American Medical Association—was committed to improving the
health of black communities and the working conditions of black medical
professionals. Fueled partly by his aspiration to develop a nursing program
for black women, Williams opened Provident in 1881 in a modest,
converted two-story home that accommodated a dozen beds.21
The establishment of Provident owed in some measure to financial
support from both black donors and white philanthropists.22 Although some
African Americans who contributed were wealthy, most donated small
monetary contributions and labor. Provident’s women’s auxiliary board
volunteers organized social events, the proceeds of which went to the
hospital’s efforts. The board expanded the women’s existing fund-raising
programs and launched a public health campaign to reduce black infant
mortality and improve the health of black children. The women’s auxiliary
provided monies to purchase much-needed supplies and equipment.
Members of the surrounding community donated provisions and furnishings
from their homes, including food, furniture, and linens.23 The collective
effort required to establish Provident as an institutional alternative to
medical Jim Crow exemplified how black communities—professionals and
laypersons, men and women, rich and poor—together responded to the
dearth of medical care providers and adequate health facilities in their
communities and otherwise negotiated the discriminatory practices of the
mainstream health establishment.
In March 1915, two decades after the founding of Provident Hospital,
Tuskegee Institute’s founder and principal Booker T. Washington initiated
National Negro Health Week.24 Although by this time Tuskegee had
already constructed its own icon of black health self-help by establishing
Tuskegee Hospital and Nurses’ Training School in 1892, National Negro
Health Week was a more ambitious endeavor. With this initiative,
Washington and those who took up the health activist mantle after his death
in the fall of 1915 inspired health consciousness in black Americans, built a
national infrastructure of health education, and coordinated local initiatives
into a large-scale, nationwide campaign.
Washington, who founded Tuskegee Institute in 1881 and by the turn of
the century had established it as the center of black American life, had long
been concerned with (and had long connected) issues of health and hygiene.
Washington developed a preoccupation with these issues as a young man
working for the wife of the local coal mine owner. He described the training
in cleanliness and orderliness he received as being as “valuable” to him as
his later scholarly education.25 Perhaps as a result, he secured a place as a
student at the Hampton Institute—with no tuition because he was unable to
pay—by impressing a college administrator with his ability to wash and
tidy a room.26 Washington’s distinct passion for hygiene was later
articulated in the ground rules and institutional culture at Tuskegee Institute
and in the eventual founding of Tuskegee Hospital. Prospective Tuskegee
students were well versed in the “gospel of the toothbrush,” as the
dissertation in Washington’s autobiography about the importance of oral
hygiene was known.27 Some of his attention to hygiene no doubt stemmed
from the fact that such matters were a characteristic concern of the
Progressive Era, as reflected in the parallel development and expansion of
the public health sector at this time. However, Washington also linked these
issues to the project of black uplift more generally.28
The seed for National Negro Health Week was planted after Washington
observed the thriving programs of the Negro Organization Society of
Virginia, whose motto “Better Schools, Better Health, Better Homes, Better
Farms” reflected a commitment to health-related uplift.29 The organization
had launched a successful sanitation and cleanup campaign among black
Virginians as a bulwark against disease. In a 1914 address before the
organization, Washington praised its members for “emphasizing the matter
of health, the matter of cleanliness, the matter of better sanitary conditions
throughout Virginia.”30 The example of the Negro Organization Society and
the limited success of the health campaign persuaded Washington to take
the campaign to the national level. Washington embarked on the planning of
National Negro Health Week through which he hoped both to coordinate
and to extend existing health activities in black communities.31
This visit to Virginia was also the occasion for the airing of
Washington’s convictions about the larger importance of health in southern
racial politics. In his speech, he argued that segregation was the cause of
much black disease and illness: “Wherever the Negro is segregated, it
usually means that he will have poor streets, poor lighting, poor sidewalks,
poor sewage, and poor sanitary conditions generally.” He continued,
“Segregation is not only unnecessary, but, in most cases, it is unjust.”32
Washington is most often remembered as an accommodationist for his less-
than-radical approach to segregation, particularly for his famous Atlanta
Compromise speech of 1895 during which he proclaimed that “in all things
purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all
things essential to mutual progress.”33 However, Washington the health
activist was, if not an integrationist, certainly an antisegregationist.
Perhaps more predictably, given his emphasis on vocational and
industrial training, Washington contended that illness impeded the ability of
blacks to be effective workers: “A weak body, a sickly body, is costly to the
whole community and to the whole state [Virginia], from an economic point
of view.”34 Washington also stressed (and cautioned whites about) the
interdependence of black and white lives in the South. He maintained that if
the health needs of blacks remained unmet, segregation could not save
white communities from exposure; he cautioned that “disease draws no
color line.”35
With five hundred dollars from the white philanthropist Anson Phelps
Stokes and the support of the Negro Business League, the National Urban
League, and others, Washington held the inaugural National Negro Health
Week in March 1915.36 The campaign stressed the “organization of cleanup committees, special health sermons by colored ministers, health lectures
by physicians and other competent persons, the thorough cleaning of
premises, including dwellings, yards, outbuildings, and making sanitary
springs and wells.”37 At local sites, black community leaders in education,
health, and church affairs organized programs to increase public awareness
of health problems and self-improvement measures for the school and
home. Health week activities—including public jeremiads proclaiming the
importance of health and public health exhibits—took place in sixteen
states and in many major cities. The National Negro Health Week campaign
gained increasing public support throughout the 1920s and 1930s, including
assistance from the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS). Indeed, one of the
original health week backers at Tuskegee Institute concluded in 1929 that
the health week movement had grown so much that “‘it can be regarded as
an institution.’”38 In 1932 USPHS took over administering National Negro
Health Week—now called the National Negro Health Movement—by
establishing the Office of Negro Health Work with the encouragement and
blessings of those at Tuskegee.39 By 1950 Washington’s idea had become
the basis of a nationwide state-sponsored black health program.40
Marcus Garvey and the Black Cross Nurses of the UNIA
Institution building as a mode of health activism was also evident within the
ranks of the largest African American social movement in U.S. history, the
Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). In this case, institution
building comprised healthcare facilities and services and also an alternative
corps of health professionals. Founded in 1914 in Kingston, Jamaica, the
UNIA’s ideological bedrock of African redemption, racial pride, and selfdetermination was brought to New York City by Marcus Garvey in 1916.41
In 1918 Garvey officially incorporated the U.S. division of the UNIA in
New York State. Within a year, the UNIA had become hugely popular in the
United States and, at its apex in the early 1920s, claimed an international
membership of several million.42 The UNIA was envisioned as a black
nation-state-in-waiting, as the infrastructure necessary to support the
reassembly of the far-flung members of the African diaspora on the African
continent. As such, the organization developed many symbols of
nationhood, including a flag, national anthem, and a government.43 Garvey
also established a battery of paramedicals, the Black Cross Nurses (BCN),
charged with caring for “the race.” The establishment of the BCNs was a
pragmatic necessity of Garvey’s nation-building plans, as the successful
relocation of the African diaspora to the Old World depended on the
survival and proliferation of black people in the New World.44
In August 1920 Garvey assembled a historical, month-long gathering of
over twenty-five thousand national and international members of the UNIA,
the First International Conference of the Negro Peoples of the World, which
culminated in the formulation of the “Declaration of Rights of the Negro
Peoples of the World.” This bold document began with a preamble that
detailed the shared protestations of people of African descent and
concluded with a bill of rights—a pronouncement of their demands.
According to the preamble:
The physicians of our race are denied the right to attend their patients while in the public
hospitals of the cities and states where they reside in certain parts of the United States. . . . it is
an injustice to our people and a serious impediment to the health of the race to deny competent
licensed Negro physicians the right to practice in the public hospitals of the communities in
which they reside, for no other reason than their race and color.45
Notably, and consistent with the necessary breadth of black health activism,
this statement joined the problem of racial discrimination in the medical
professions to the issue of racism as an “impediment” to black health to a
more general concern with social justice. Members of the UNIA agreed that
the myriad causes of the lack of adequate healthcare for blacks required an
urgent solution. The UNIA accordingly sought “complete control of our
social institutions” through the BCNs and other endeavors.46
The BCN was one of several UNIA auxiliaries and the only one
composed exclusively of female members.47 The first BCN unit was
formed in Philadelphia in the spring of 1920. As BCN units expanded
throughout the many divisions and chapters of the UNIA, Garvey
formalized their leadership structure and mandated that they be led at the
national level by a nurse with at least three years of training.48
Although the BCNs were imagined as principle healthcare providers for
the UNIA organization, they also were represented as a constructive answer
to black women’s limited career horizons in nursing.49 The UNIA nursing
corps was modeled after the nurses of the American Red Cross, who had
served at home and abroad after national disasters and during epidemics
since the late nineteenth century and who tended soldiers injured in combat
in World War I.50 Black women volunteered for service duty in the Red
Cross during the Great War, but owing to Jim Crow few were called up.51
Given the UNIA’s avowed pessimism about equality for blacks in the
medical professions and its leader’s belief that “the only hope of eventual
solution to the problem of race prejudice” would come from “independent
endeavor,” it was unsurprising that the organization fashioned an alternative
to the Red Cross.52 Thus the formation of an alternative health cadre, the
BCNs, was an example of institution building that embodied a critique of
medical Jim Crow.
Members of the BCN, like their Red Cross peers, were expected to tend
to the armed forces—in this case the UNIA’s own militia and the African
Legion—should conflict come to pass.53 Some BCNs had formal training as
nurses or midwives; however, most “worked with practical training in first
aid and nutrition.”54 (The small number of practical and registered nurses in
the BCN was, of course, a function of discrimination in nursing schools,
such as the practices that motivated the founding of Provident Hospital.)
According to the UNIA bylaws, the BCNs were primarily charged “to
attend to the sick of the Division” with which they were affiliated. In
addition, the nurses were expected to “carry on a system of relief” in the
face of “pestilence” or natural disasters, produce materials to “educate the
public to the use of safety devices and prevention of accidents,” and
“instruct in sanitation for the prevention of epidemics.”55 BCNs were also
responsible for “caring” duties, including tending to the homebound sick
and instructing the women of the UNIA in first aid, infant care, “hygiene
and domestic science,” and proper nutrition and eating habits.56
Additionally, this nurse auxiliary was at least symbolically responsible for
the health of the frequently ailing Garvey and “indicated the readiness of
the UNIA to come to the aid of . . . stricken [African diasporic] peoples all
over the world.”57 In keeping with what the historian Tony Martin describes
as Garvey’s “dual tendency to score the white race for its injustice while
simultaneously utilizing the language of condemnation to spur the black
race on to greater self-reliance,” UNIA health activism condemned the
racist practices of the mainstream medical system and constructed
alternatives to it.58
Scholars emphasize the importance of Garvey’s experiment in nation
building as a source of inspiration for black power politics.59 For example,
Malcolm X’s parents were members of the UNIA.60 Given that the Black
Panthers were avid readers and followers of the ideas of Malcolm X, it is
probable that Garvey’s examples of institution building influenced the
organization. More definitively, Panther health politics of the late 1960s and
early 1970s was influenced by a more historically proximate model of a
health activism tactic of institution building: the clinics and medical
services sponsored by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
(SNCC) and its close collaborator, the Medical Committee for Human
Rights (MCHR).
Model Clinics: SNCC and the MCHR
Some of the most shocking photography and television footage of the civil
rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s depicted activists being hosed
down, shot, attacked by dogs, and otherwise abused. Although these images
brought into the open the terrible recalcitrance of the southern white power
structure, they also begged the question of who would care for those
wounded on the frontlines of the battle for civil rights. Could activists who
risked life and limb by merely attempting to sit at the lunch counters and in
the bus depots of the deep South realistically rely on local white health
professionals for emergency healthcare? Would the limited number of black
doctors practicing in the South, owing to decades of discrimination in the
medical profession, be sufficient to heal activists taken ill during the normal
course of their organizing labors or critically injured on the frontlines of the
black freedom struggle?
For the strategists behind the 1964 Freedom Summer project, a
landmark event of the black protest struggle, the answer to these questions
was decidedly negative. Accordingly, planners sought the participation of
students and medical workers alike. Organized under the umbrella of a
coalition of civil rights groups—the Council of Federated Organizations—
and spearheaded by SNCC, one of its member groups, the project’s aim was
to bring national pressure to bear on the white power structure that
remained entrenched in the South. In the spring of 1964 SNCC field
secretary Robert Moses and others settled on a strategy they hoped would
turn the attention of elites to the plight of disenfranchised blacks in
Mississippi: they called on white middle-c…
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