Civil-rights historian Dittmer (History/DePauw Univ.; Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, 1994) focuses on one of the lesser-known groups involved in the struggle.
The author acknowledges that his coverage of the Medical Committee for Human Rights in the Bancroft Prize–winning Local People was inadequate. Here he tells the full story of this activist health-care organization, linking its aims and accomplishments with larger struggles. The MCHR, founded by left-wing, white, mostly Jewish doctors and joined by African-Americans, had a dual mission—to provide medical care for civil-rights workers in Mississippi during Freedom Summer (1964) and to reform the South’s Jim Crow health-care system. Dittmer reveals the motivations of many of the organization’s leaders, and he paints a disturbing picture of the shameful treatment of both black doctors and patients in the South. In the early chapters he writes vividly of the challenges facing civil-rights workers and of the brutality—beatings, jailings, killings—inflicted on them. The narrative pace slows when the author shifts attention to the political controversies and internal ideological disputes that led to the group’s decline. Dittmer documents the disintegration of the MCHR following the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the rise of the black-militant movement. Northern white liberals began to question their role in the organization, and a rift was growing between those who saw it as the medical arm of the civil-rights movement and those who believed its mission should be to address the health-care needs of all poor people, regardless of race. By the late ’60s the MCHR had become a cash-strapped loose federation of largely independent local chapters. The author argues that it should be remembered for its role in desegregating Southern hospitals and medical societies, creating comprehensive community-health centers, shaping health-care legislation and providing a model for subsequent activist health organizations, such as Partners in Health.
A stark reminder not just of the actions of a group of idealistic activists but of the violence and turmoil of the nation’s not-so-distant past.