Dr. Martin Luther King on health care injustice

Jan 20, 2023 | Projects

PNHP note: The Associated Press wire story below, dated March 26, 1966, contains the first known published reference to Dr. King’s famous quotation regarding injustice in health care, namely, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman.”

According to this AP account, Dr. King’s remarks were made at a Chicago press conference held on March 25, 1966, in connection with the annual meeting of Medical Committee for Human Rights. The AP story, which carries no byline, was published the next day in newspapers around the country.

PNHP’s Dr. Quentin Young, who was present at the press conference in his capacity as a leader of MCHR, has frequently attested to the accuracy of the quotation, but until recently he and other PNHP staff were unaware of any published accounts of the proceedings that corroborated his memory.

A slightly different version of Dr. King’s remarks was published in a Cleveland newspaper, the Call and Post, about three weeks later, on April 16, 1966. In that account, produced by the NPI news service, Dr. King is quoted as saying, “Of all forms of discrimination and inequalities, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman.” It’s reasonable to assume that the AP story, published the day after the press conference, is the more accurate of the two.

Both stories are reproduced below.


King Berates Medical Care Given Negroes

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh, Wis.), March 26, 1966

CHICAGO (AP) – Massive direct-action is needed to “raise the conscience of the nation” to the segregated and inferior medical care received by Negroes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said Friday night.

Calling for court suits to force doctors and hospitals to comply with the Civil Rights Act, King and officers of the Medical Committee for Human Rights accused the American Medical Association of a “conspiracy of inaction” in civil rights.

At a press conference before his speech to the committee’s annual meeting. King said: “We are concerned about the constant use of federal funds to support this most notorious expression of segregation. Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death.

“I see no alternative to direct action and creative nonviolence to raise the conscience of the nation.”

Dr. John L. S. Holloman, a New York City physician who heads the interracial committee, told reporters: “There is scarcely a hospital North or South that does not overtly or covertly discriminate against Negroes. County medical societies, especially in the South, have discriminated in admitting qualified Negro doctors.” he said. “We put the blame right on their (the AMA’s) doorstep.” The AMA had no immediate comment.


The same Associated Press wire story appeared in the Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.), the Ironwood Daily Globe (Ironwood, Mich.), and the Mt. Vernon Register News (Mt. Vernon, Ill.), among other outlets.



Three-Pronged Assault Planned for Hospitals

Call and Post (Cleveland), April 16, 1966

CHICAGO (NPI) – Hospitals that discriminate against Negroes face a triple assault – from both private and government sources.

An official of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare said HEW plans to cut off federal aid to hospitals found guilty of practicing discrimination.

Meanwhile, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said that civil rights leaders are planning “direct action” against Chicago hospitals that fail to give Negroes equal treatment.

Also, Dr. John L.S. Holloman, Jr., chairman, Medical Committee for Human Rights, revealed that his organization will soon assist in federal suits against hospitals that practice discrimination.

The HEW action was announced by Philip R. Lee, the department’s secretary for health and scientific affairs. Lee said his department is fully prepared to stop funds to hospitals in order to bring about compliance with Title VI of the 1965 Civil Rights Act.

That section of the law forbids the federal government to aid any activity which discriminates on grounds of race or national origin.

Lee said 220 discrimination complaints are on file with HEW.

In announcing his “direct action campaign” against Chicago hospital discrimination, Dr. King noted that the Negro infant mortality rate in the city’s poverty-stricken Woodlawn area is as bad as Mississippi’s rate.

“Of all forms of discrimination and inequalities, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhuman,” Dr. King said.

The rights leader said federal officials have promised to look into hospital discrimination, but have done nothing.

“We must move beyond sending complaints to Washington and act directly,” he asserted.

He said he had not decided what form is “direct action” program will take.

Dr. King also charged that the American Medical Association has not taken needed steps to end racial discrimination in the treatment received by Negroes and within the AMA itself.

Meanwhile, Dr. John L.S. Holloman, Jr., national chairman of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, announced a program of lawsuits against discrimination-practicing Southern hospitals that will “cover every hospital that is guilty.”

He said his committee would gather data and advise and assist people in the South who would formal open the legal campaign.

The first cases, he said, would be brought in Mississippi, where almost every hospital, he pointed out, discriminates.

Dr. Holloman – like Dr. King – scathingly denounced hospital discrimination in Northern hospitals.

“There is scarcely a Northern hospital that does not discriminate against Negro patients either in commission or omission,” said Dr. Holloman, president-elect of the predominantly Negro National Medical Association.

The hospital discrimination found by the three leaders would not be hard to prove.

Only a week before, a government survey of health and welfare service desegregation in the South revealed widespread non-compliance with the law in federally supported programs, some of them run by state and local governments.

A survey sponsored by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that almost all Southern state hospitals remained segregated, with the exception of mental hospitals.

Meanwhile, a nurse who has spent eight months in Holmes County, Miss., revealed that hospitals in the South continue to discriminate – “but these days they’re subtle about it.”

According to Helen Richardson, 31, who served as a nurse and health counselor at a clinic in the Mississippi city, the hospitals have taken down their “Negro Entrance” signs, but they try to avoid admitting Negro patients.

“They’re sneaky about it,” she said.



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