Lathran Johnson Woodard is the Chief Executive Officer of the South Carolina Primary Health Care Association and Immediate Past Board Chair of NACHC.
Black History Month is an opportune time to reflect on the roots of the Community Health Center movement. Health centers sprang into existence more than five decades ago as part of a “ripple effect” from the Civil Rights Movement. A group of activists, among them medical students and doctors from the Medical Committee for Human Rights, descended upon rural Mississippi during what became known as Freedom Summer. In early 1965, the freedom marchers were brutally attacked on what became known as “Bloody Sunday” as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the road from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
Drs. H. Jack Geiger and Count Gibson, who would become the cofounders of the health center movement, provided life-saving medical treatment to several of the marchers who had been beaten with bull whips and billy clubs. Among the wounded was the young Civil Rights leader, John Lewis, who would survive the skull fracture he sustained that day and spend a lifetime fighting for social justice and as a champion of health centers.
That same year, health centers were launched as a small demonstration program as part of President Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity. Until then, Americans had not looked to community health services as a means to address population health problems and implement social change in access to food, housing, clothing, water, sanitation, education and economic opportunity. Everyone understood that intervention was needed to fight poverty, but starting a program and a host of community-based organizations that would address these social ills over the long term was daunting. Yet, it was done.
It began in two vastly different areas of the country where the landscape seemed different, but the determinants of health – poverty, inequality, lack of access to care, segregation – were insidiously the same. In rural Mound Bayou, Mississippi, appalling health conditions demanded attention. One of the early pioneers of the health center movement, Dr. Robert Smith, recently told Kaiser Health News:
“Mississippi was third-world and was so bad and so separated. The Community Health Center Movement was the conduit for physicians all over this country who believed that all people have a right to health care.”
The article continues:
“In the 1960s, many people in Mound Bayou and the surrounding area didn’t have clean drinking water or indoor plumbing. At the time, the 12,000 Black residents of northern Bolivar County, which includes Mound Bayou, faced unemployment rates as high as 75% and lived on a median annual income of just $900 (around $7,500 in today’s dollars), according to a congressional report. The infant mortality rate was close to 60 for every 1,000 live births — four times the rate for affluent Americans… Delta Health Center employees helped people insulate their homes. They built outhouses and provided food and sometimes even traveled to patients’ homes to offer care, if someone didn’t have transportation.”
In Massachusetts, a similar effort got off the ground with the creation of the Tufts-Columbia Point Health Center. Located on an isolated and impoverished peninsula in Boston, Massachusetts, Columbia Point Health Center, now known as Geiger Gibson Community Health Center, opened inside a public housing project basement.
Today health centers serve nearly 30 million people and have become part of the nation’s primary health care foundation, distinguished by their mission to community and addressing the most pressing needs of our time through the lens of equity. As I write this, health centers are exhausted on the front lines of a pandemic that has disproportionately sickened and killed millions of people in communities of color. Yet, they have heeded the national call to ensure equity in this public health crisis, through testing, vaccinating, and providing boosters. Their efforts are yielding results: 61 percent of the COVID-19 vaccines administered at health centers have protected people of color. Is it enough? No. Health care remains the unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement and we continue to march on.