A Guest Blog Post from Dr. Jack Geiger
Voting Rights—and Freedom Summer, in Mississippi in 1964—was a pathway to the creation of community health centers, for it brought to Mississippi, through the Medical Committee for Human Rights, so many of the people who would go on to create Community Health Centers.
But what did voting rights mean in Mississippi? What did they have to do with health? What did they have to do with community health centers?
Here’s a story from the Delta Health Center, with some answers.
As soon as that health center project began work in 1966, our brilliant community organizer, John Hatch, began the development of ten local community health associations, covering all the towns and rural areas in our 500-square mile target area of northern Bolivar County. (They later merged to form the North Bolivar County Health and Community Development Council, which now owns and operates the health center). One of those local health associations represented Rosedale, second largest town in our area, sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River. Rosedale’s population had a black majority, but of course the town government was lily-white. The white part of town was pretty. The black part had dirt roads, no sidewalks, no sewer system—just outhouses—no well-protected water supply, and an old and crumbling housing stock. Whenever it rained heavily, Rosedale’s streets were literally awash with feces.
The Rosedale Health Association wanted to have a satellite center, where patients could gather to be transported to the health center 15 or 20 miles away—and perhaps for other purposes as well. Their first thought was to try to rent a small building from some white plantation owner. John Hatch had a better idea. We had already cracked the banks: Hatch and the health council had already visited all the area banks, explaining that the health center had an annual budget of more than a million dollars and was looking for a nice bank to deposit it in—that is, a bank that would give fair mortgages to qualified black residents (ending under-the-table usury deals and demands for white co-signers); a bank that would open some branches in black communities and hire black people as tellers and branch managers, not janitors. The smallest and (previously) most racist bank in the county jumped at the chance: a fine example of the interest in green overcoming the aversion to black. So we had a source of financing. Why not buy a small building for a satellite/community center, with a mortgage, and have the health center rent it, thus paying the mortgage bill? So the Rosedale health association got its building.
The Delta Health Center, however, knowing the intensity and hostility of the local and state governments towards anything they perceived as “political activity,” carefully rented the building only from 7am to 6pm each day. Whatever the health association did after that was their project, their business, not ours. And what the Rosedale folks did, among other things, was set out to quietly get every eligible black citizen of Rosedale registered to vote. Something they did very well.
One of the local residents that John Hatch had selected and trained as a member of his community health action staff was a bright, thoughtful, well-educated and energetic young black man named Johnny Todd—born and raised in Rosedale—who worked on our staff as a community organizer and health educator. When the time was right, Johnny Todd took a leave of absence from the health center and ran for Mayor of Rosedale, along with some black candidates for the town council – and won, becoming the first black mayor in the history of Rosedale.
Then what happened? Mayor Todd knew a lot about the county and state budgets, and about all the federal agencies—in housing, economic development, transportation, municipal infrastructure, public health and the like—that somehow had never paid any attention to the needs of black communities. What he didn’t already know, he learned so that over the next couple of years, the black residents of Rosedale got a sewer system, safe water supplies, paved roads, some affordable low-cost new housing, a park and a recreation center, and a branch library.
Was that good for their health? You bet! Was that consistent with the Delta Health Center’s goals? Absolutely!
So this story from a small Mississippi town more than four decades ago is in keeping with the things U.S. Deputy Attorney General Tom Perez recently told an audience of health center leaders at the NACHC Policy & Issues Forum. This forty-year old story suggests a slogan for the Community Health Vote engagement effort in 2012:
“Voting is good for your health! Register Now! We can help!” Yes, we did. And yes, we can.