Five Lessons For Health Care From The Civil Rights Movement

Dr. Paula Johnson — Chief of the Division of Women’s Health at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, and Executive Director for the Connors Center for Women's Health and Gender Biology — spoke today of the need for a new grassroots movement — a civil-rights-like activist uprising — to promote equal, high-quality health care for all. Her remarks were part of an event honoring the noted psychiatrist, activist, author, consultant, and Harvard professor, Dr. Alvin Pouissant, who provided medical care to civil rights protestors and worked towards desegregating medical facilities in the Deep South in the 1960’s.

Dr. Johnson (who, full disclosure, has treated a close member of my family) is herself a pioneer, serving as the first African American chief medical resident in the history of the Brigham, and a physician on the forefront of women’s health and cardiology.

Here she describes what health care can learn from civil rights:

What I would like to do now is to share 5 lessons from the Civil Rights Movement that I believe can apply to health.

The first lesson is that:
Change takes time and we must take every opportunity to accelerate change.
It took from 1870 to 1965 for blacks to gain the true right to vote! But there were clear moments in time when change was accelerated, as with the marches in Selma. Today, in Health, we need to accelerate change.

This leads us to the second lesson:
It is a compelling Vision and inspiring leadership that motivate and sustain us as we work toward our goals.
Today, we need a grander, a more ambitious vision for health. And we need leaders willing to step up and help us realize this vision.

The third lesson is:
True change rarely comes from the halls of Congress alone—laws are essential but insufficient to make true change.

It took courage and determination and belief in a larger vision by communities of people to get the leaders of the government to understand that the laws then on the books were not enough ---

The Movement had the visionary leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King --- but as great of a leader as Dr. King was, he alone could not get President Lyndon Johnson to agree to push for a Voting Rights Act in 1965.
It was the acts of men, women and children in Selma, Alabama ---

It was the physicians who led in the work of desegregating health care facilities ---

It was the Fannie Lou Hamers of the movement, a poor woman who had been sterilized when she saw a doctor for stomach pain, who became a leader and whose Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party threatened to unseat the segregated Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

It was a movement with leadership at all levels.

Today, we need a Movement for Health that engages all of us.

The fourth lesson:
It is critical that we move beyond the Individual and embrace the notion that most change must occur at the societal level.
In 1965, President Johnson finally recognized that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as important as it was, wasn’t enough! In his famous “Voting Rights Act Speech” to a joint session of Congress, Lyndon Johnson utters those famous words - "There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”

Johnson ends this landmark address by saying: “This great, rich, restless country can offer opportunity and education and hope to all --- all black and white, all North and South, sharecropper and city dweller. These are the enemies --- poverty, ignorance, disease --- they are our enemies... And these enemies too --- poverty, disease, and ignorance - --We Shall Overcome.”

100 years after the end of the civil war; he laid down the gauntlet.

This awakening would lay the foundation for the Great Society, the War on Poverty...made possible by his leadership and by the leadership of King and others --- stepping into the fray and creating a partnership between the movement and the government.

As the leader of the free world, he would go on to describe a vision, a vision that embraced the “societal approach” --- the Great Society of which the “The War on Poverty” was the signature.

Today is the time to address health, as a society! That leads me to the fifth lesson:

The need for Innovation
The Civil Rights Movement used a new set of tools, “non- violent protest”, collaboration among the disparate groups, and the media. Leadership was redefined as both leadership from the top and grass-roots leadership.

Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement also understood the power of the media --- harnessing it by using a combination of nonviolent methods and the media to influence public opinion.

Just remember the indelible images in Selma on Bloody Sunday, the tear gas and beatings with billy clubs --- and remember that all of America watched. Powerful images that are engraved in our collective memories.

Today, what will be the new generation of images that we will create?

What will we do to bring innovation to creating a healthy America?

This program aired on February 8, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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