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In the light of current debates over health care, this book provides some sobering and relevant insight. Towards the end of his thorough and balanced history of the Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR), John Dittmer provides a chapter entitled ‘Health Care Is a Human Right’. It has an epigraph from Aristotle:
If we believe that men have any personal rights at all as human beings, they have an absolute moral right to such measure of good health as society, and society alone, is able to give them. (228)
This chapter details the setting up in 1967 of a community health center, called the Tufts-Delta Health Center, in Bolivar County, Mississippi. It offered free clinical health services to the mainly black community and eventually ‘prescriptions for food’ to treat the malnutrition that was shockingly widespread. The staff ‘attacked the root causes of poor health and deprivation’ (233), organizing sanitation and providing education, with the involvement of the residents a crucial component. It served as a model for the development of other health centers.
Dittmer then leads into a discussion of the efforts by many in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Senator Edward Kennedy and the MCHR, to put forward plans for a national health program, noting that the ‘United States was the only industrial country without a national health program covering all of its citizens’ (236). Those efforts were thwarted by the American Medical Association (AMA), and pharmaceutical and insurance corporations, who all condemned the non-profit approach to medicine, too much government intervention in health care, and the view that health care was a right not a privilege. As there was no consensus as to what sort of plan should be implemented, the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s trip to China took attention away from the issue, and there was no consumer push for action, nothing was done. President Clinton tried it again in the 1990s, and was defeated. Now the administration of Barack Obama is feeling the same resistance.
The MCHR plan in 1971, as Dittmer describes it, was revolutionary, with no charge for any service, aimed to remove capitalism altogether from health care, and ‘had absolutely no chance of being enacted in Congress’ (245). But at this stage of its life, the MCHR was a different organization to when it began in 1964.
This is a complete history of the MCHR: from before its beginnings in the deeply racist times leading up to the 1960s, to its eventual disappearance in the early 1980s, to a précis of what the prominent members achieved in the years afterwards. It began when segregation in the South was still in existence, even in hospitals, and the AMA a racially discriminatory organization. Although it was 1954 when segregation of schools was officially ended, it was another ten years before the first public elementary school was desegregated in Mississippi. There were few black doctors in the area, and the health facilities for blacks were very poor: cramped, no air-conditioning, poor lighting, inadequate bed numbers. Some places denied blacks entry if they couldn’t pay in cash.
Dittmer describes the racial scene and mood of the times, setting the tone for the reader and introducing the various people of the MCHR who went on to work valiantly for equal health care rights for blacks. They were doctors, nurses and social workers, predominantly (but not exclusively) white and middle class, and often Jewish, with deep convictions about human rights and social justice. The author gives each significant contributor to the MCHR a potted biography, so that the reader knows their background: for example, Robert Smith, H Jack Geiger, Alvin Poussaint, Phyllis Cunningham and June Finer, to name a few.
He details each triumph and failure along the tumultuous journey of the MCHR, from when it started as a group providing medical assistance to civil rights workers in Mississippi, to its fractured end composed of revolutionaries obsessed with being politically correct. Dittmer is careful to emphasize that despite its flaws and its petering out in the early 1980s, the legacy of the MCHR is very fine indeed: aid and comfort to civil rights workers; permanent improvements in health care; help in desegregation of health care facilities in the South, and awarding of hospital privileges to black physicians; and most importantly, the development of the community health center. MCHR was involved in significant civil rights actions (such as the march from Selma to Montgomery, and during the 1968 Democratic National Convention), and worked with Martin Luther King Jr and Stokely Carmichael, amongst others. And it also created an alumni that continues to do good work, and to be social activists.
My only minor criticisms are that the numerous acronyms are difficult to follow at times, and occasionally the writing is a little pedestrian. But I now know much more about the difficulties faced by those struggling for equal rights, general and health, for African Americans and the poor. The fact that such blatant and violent discrimination existed only 50 years ago, and that the struggle for universal health care is still an issue today, is sobering indeed. John Dittmer has written a detailed and fair-minded account of an important organization in American medical and civil rights history.
© 2010 Sue Bond
Sue Bond is a writer, reviewer and editor with degrees in literature, creative writing and medicine. She lives in Queensland, Australia.