By Lathran J. Woodard, Chair of the Board, NACHC; Chief Executive Officer of the South Carolina Primary Health Care Association
This year’s observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday comes at an acutely painful time for our nation and for the Community Health Center Movement. We are many months into fighting a deadly pandemic that has exacted a heavy price on our communities. And just days ago, a mob of insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, an act of violence and lawlessness that shocked our nation.
It also comes as our nation reckons with the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, and the millions of men, women and children who have been targets of violence because of the color of their skin. As health care providers, we bear witness to the direct effects of violence, racism, stress, physical and mental abuse on the health and well-being of our patients, neighbors, friends, and family.
Our hearts are weary, and yet, the words of Dr. King in reflecting on the turbulence of his time, are relevant today. “We must accept finite disappointment,” he said, “but never lose infinite hope.”
As healers whose mission emerged from the Civil Rights Movement, our goal is clear: We dedicate ourselves to the task of trying even harder to eradicate poverty, illness, hate, bias, and brutality in our communities. We must continue our work to provide all people with a path out of illness, poverty, and disease and reject the racial bias embedded in our laws and policies that has held back Indigenous and people of color, especially Black Americans, in this country – not just in health care, but also in other arenas, including policing, education, and housing.
Last month, we sadly lost Dr. H. Jack Geiger, who shared Dr. King’s vision for justice and equity. Early in his career, Dr. Geiger promoted and led campaigns to end discrimination in hospital care and admission to medical schools. During the 1960s, as part of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, he organized medical students to provide care to Civil Rights workers protesting discrimination throughout the South. It was then that Dr. Geiger planted the seeds of the Community Health Center Movement, founding the nation’s first urban and rural health centers at Columbia Point, Boston, and Mound Bayou, Mississippi, in 1965. Today, the network of health centers serve 30 million people in more than 14,000 medically underserved communities located in every state, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Territories.
Our work to establish health equity is more important than ever as health centers prepare to help bring about the end of a pandemic through a massive vaccination effort in hard-hit medically underserved communities. And so, as we begin that task, the words of Dr. Geiger seem prescient for our time:
“Like all healers we strive to heal. Like most healers, we refuse to bow down to pestilence. But we have an understanding of pestilence that it is not merely biological. It is also social, political and economic. This is the pestilence we fight, along with the pestilence of biological agents and natural disease… It is not a reason for despair. It is not a reason for pessimism. It is the nature of what is best in us as human beings: to join the struggle, to build a life around it, to commit to it, to make sure that it will continue.”