Health Care and the Civil Rights Movement

April 20, 2011 in 1950s-1960s, Social history

American medical practice will always have a dark stain on it’s reputation in the civil rights era. From the moment it came into existence as an organization, the American Medical Association made a decision not to encourage racial equality in the practice of medicine.  The association advocated separate medical education for African Americans that was more often than not second-hand and inadequate in comparison to the education whites received at a much cheaper price.  The organization also attempted (and in many cases was successful) to close African American only medical schools.  It was World War II that gave African Americans the break they needed in order to gain more even footing in the medical field.  Many Americans came away from the wars years horrified at Hitler’s brand of racism in Germany.  This new understanding and attitude caused many Americans to dedicate themselves to uproot the racism in the States.  People were horrified when they thought about Hitler’s atrocities against the Jews and even more horrified when it was compared to certain moments in history where white Americans had lashed out and slaughtered blacks all for the purpose of keeping them in line and disenfranchised.  In the 1940’s and 50’s, the AMA opened parts of its organization to blacks for the first time.  Both white and black medical experts lobbied to have medical specialty boards and groups integrated.  In 1950, a man named Peter Marshall Murray became the first African American to ever serve in the AMA House of Delegates.  In spite of this racial barrier being broken, hard times would fall on African Americans in medicine for the most of the 1950’s.  Although African Americans had been admitted to many different county and city medical societies in the south, the AMA involvement for blacks was still limited because of a lack of approval in the House of Delegates.  It was also during this time that the number of African Americans studying at traditional white medical schools declined, showing that integration efforts were being resisted harder than ever.

Hospital desegregation was also an issue that African American physicians hoped to tackle.  Hospital staff were segregated throughout the country as a rule.  This became a hot issue because most of the medical post-graduate training was done at hospitals.  A man named Hubert Eaton attempted to break this barrier when he tried to join James Walker Memorial Hospital staff in 1954.  The hospital declined and a court battle ensued.  The case eventually came before the Supreme Court which ruled in favor of the Hospital.  Eaton would try again four years later only to be rejected a second time.  Finally, in 1964, he and several others were finally accepted onto the staff.  This was one of the first cases of black physicians working in a fully integrated environment at a public hospital.  Eaton was one of many physicians during this time that worked outside of the AMA in order to try and integrate hospitals, as well as the field of medicine itself.  Through their groundbreaking efforts, the later years of the Civil Rights movement saw the successful careers of many other African American doctors, and equal treatment for black citizens.  The medical field is thus a very important yet often overlooked part of the Civil Rights years.

“Segregation, Civil Rights, and Health Disparities: The Legacy of African American    Physicians and Organized Medicine, 1910-1968.” Original Communication.  6 June, 2009 <www.nmanet.org/images/uploads/Documents/OC513.pdf>



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