Health Center News

Reflections on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

On this special day of remembrance for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. we find ourselves also thinking about how Community Health Centers came into existence as part of a “ripple effect” from the Civil Rights Movement.  A group of civil rights activists descended upon rural Mississippi to register voters as part Freedom Summer.  What they saw and did there culminated in a fight for social justice and access to health care.

In a recent article, Dan Hawkins, Senior Adviser to NACHC’s President and CEO, recounts how doctors H. Jack Geiger and Count Gibson helped launch the Community Health Center Movement:

Alabama officers await demonstrators at the Edmund Pettus Bridge (1965).

Dr. Geiger and a fellow physician, Dr. Count Gibson, founded the Medical Committee for Human Rights as the health care arm of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.  Jack and Count walked beside the Reverend Martin Luther King and others during many of the seminal moments. In early 1965, when the freedom marchers were brutally attacked on “Bloody Sunday” as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the road from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, Jack and Count rendered life-saving medical treatment to several of them, including the young civil rights leader John Lewis.  Lewis’ injuries were severe enough that he needed hospital care, but Jack and Count knew that there was not a hospital in the South that would accept him, so Count – then the Chair of Tufts University Medical School’s Department of Preventive Medicine – arranged to have him medically evacuated to Tufts Hospital in Boston, where life-saving care was provided. Today, Lewis represents the 5th District of Georgia in the United States Congress.”

In recalling those initial days, Geiger often described the conditions in rural Bolivar County, Mississippi, which was the second poorest county in the United States.  Many residents suffered from untreated medical conditions, but also from malnutrition.  Following a philosophy that “health involved more than health care,” Geiger and fellow activists dug wells and sanitary privies, repaired houses, and taught others to do the same.  Recognizing the link between illness, poverty and lack of health care that plagued other communities across the country, many Civil Rights activists decried the conditions of “medical apartheid” and rallied around the idea of health care as a right for all and not just a privilege for a few. Hawkins writes:

 Jack and Count persuaded officials at President Lyndon Johnson’s vanguard War on Poverty agency to invest in a pilot effort to deliver health care in disenfranchised inner-city and rural communities.  The first health centers opened their doors in 1965, combining comprehensive primary health care with public health and community economic development and empowerment.”

Today, over half a century later,  the vision passionately pursued by Dr. Geiger and Dr. Gibson and the pioneers of the Community Health Center Movement can be seen in thousands of communities throughout the nation.  There are 1,400 health centers, working in more than 11,000 rural and urban community locations, serving some 28 million patients. Such a legacy would likely not be possible without the persistence of the dedicated activists who followed Dr. King and looked at health care through the lens of civil rights and similarly concluded  that “of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”