John Dittmer, the former Tougaloo historian whose “Local People” in 1994 became the definitive work about Mississippi’s civil rights era, now has brought forth the untold story of how a group of black doctors – among them some Mississippi stalwarts – broke down Jim Crow in medical care.
In “The Good Doctors,” Dittmer tells the heroics of how African-American doctors had to fight to obtain justice in hospitals and clinics, and to tear down the color barrier in the American Medical Association.
This is the story of Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) which had its origins in the early 1960s after a previously inept organization for black doctors had failed to get recognition for black medical practitioners and caregivers, and overcome the AMA’s rejection of black doctors becoming members of its affiliates.
One Mississippian who became prominent in the MCHR was Dr. Robert Smith of Jackson who until today maintains a vast practice in the black community and area hospitals. Bob Smith was the soft-spoken son of a prosperous cattle farming family in Terry who insisted he attend Tougaloo College from which he graduated and then was accepted into Howard University Medical School in Washington.
Because no blacks could obtain a medical degree in Mississippi at that time, the state had created a scholarship to send black doctors for training outside the state. Smith was one of the beneficiaries, going on to do his residency at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, a sort of second home for him because two of his brothers lived in the city.
The mild-mannered Smith wound up as an unlikely hero of the doctors’ movement in 1963 when his photograph appeared in The New York Times in an MCHR picket line outside the AMA convention in Atlantic City. The 24-year-old Smith had been asked by Dr. A.B. Britton, Jackson’s senior black doctor, to fill in for him as a Southern presence at the Atlantic City protest.
During the bloody 1964 Freedom Summer when a thousand young civil rights activists surged into Mississippi, the “Good Doctors” provided treatment and medical care for the many workers after they were beaten or assaulted.
Dittmer traces the step-by-step progress Mississippi’s African-American doctors have made over the years, marked by its slow pace. For example: It was not until 1965 that Dr. Aaron Shirley, then noted for his medical practice in Vicksburg, was the first African-American to be accepted into residency at the University Medical Center in Jackson.
Significantly, opened in 1995 in a nearly defunct shopping center, the Jackson Medical Mall established by Shirley now provides health care for thousands of black people in central Mississippi, and is a cooperative venture with the University Medical Center.
Very little mention, unfortunately, is made in Dittmer’s book of Biloxi’s brave Dr. Gilbert Mason, who 50 years ago this month risked his life to lead a group of blacks in what is historically known as the “Biloxi Wade-In.” Mason (who died two years ago) and his group were beaten by a mob wielding bicycle chains and clubs when they attempted to enter the Biloxi beach. The event marked Mississippi’s first public assault on racial barriers in its 15-year civil rights struggle.
Bob Smith, once arrested by Jackson cops for entering the Tougaloo campus to provide free medical care, 45 years later has been honored by the City of Jackson which has named a downtown thoroughfare as the Robert Smith Parkway. He is regularly paid public tributes by civic groups for his long, dedicated medical service.
“The Good Doctors” will soon be published by Bloomsbury Press of New York.
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215. Send e-mails to Minor through firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEMS Daily Journal