Sometimes I feel like a motherless child long way from home.
This piece I dedicate to Edward J. Eckenfels, Chicago with whom I have collaborated for just over half a century. Captain Edi was born into deprivation, experienced the Korean War and emerged as one of the most sensitive voices for humanitarian medicine and a change agent for medical education reform. He introduced me to his fascinations of Chicago, a city of great cultural diversity but highly segregated. With Captain Edi, I visited Mile Square Center one of the first city neighborhood health centers. He took me to Alabama and Georgia. The rural black population in Holmes County, Alabama, about the poorest place in America had been active in civil rights from the early sixties. In 1969, Martin Luther King was already dead, and the details of the My Lai massacre (March 16, 1968) were just emerging. Holmes County was in the process of conducting an assessment of the causes of endemic disease through a well developed health project designed by Eckenfels. Its unfolding dream was that more comprehensive community health programs would evolve. I stayed in the home of Ed’s friend, Edi Logan a schoolteacher and director of the project. We were on the south side of the tracks.
Kings’ dream and quest echoed President Roosevelt : freedom from fear, freedom from want as well as his advise the only wise, honorable and Christian thing to do is treat each black and white strictly on merit as men, giving them no more and no less than they show their worth to be. Speaking in Chicago before the National Convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights (1966), Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed that of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhumane.
Several decades later I introduced Eckenfels to the Balkan region. In Skopje we coined the phrase: the health of the public is a catalyst for peace and development (2001). He provided insight when I wrote the Skopje declaration: Public health, peace and human rights. We developed a public health curriculum for peace and approaches to disaster management through public health, human security and health diplomacy. Invited by Jesse Jackson we presented some of this during annual Rainbow Push Coalition meetings. Jesse Jackson was within the gun sight of the assassin’s bullet. He went on with King’s work in the establishment of Operation Breadbasket and the Rainbow Push Coalition.
In early summer 1966, I entered the USA on short and longer term fellowships from the American State Department and the National Institutes of Health. The compass of America was directed to the Great Society and War on Poverty. Mile square was one of the first free health centers to be established. I arrived after the assassination of John F Kennedy and during Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency but before the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Mine and Ed’s home was Presbyterian St Luke’s Medical Center (PSLMC). The dormant Benjamin Rush Charter was reactivated in 1969, with Medical Dean, Mark Lepper a prestigious epidemiologist and our mentor. Rush development was based on the Campbell report, which stressed primary health care. James Campbell a staunch Methodist was President of the Medical Center, which was directing its interests towards nursing, allied health sciences, health systems management and biomedical engineering. Later another Rush Dean, Erich E. Brueschke would support student community service, family practice development, and the concept of a primary health care scholar. I enabled visits to the Balkans lead by Brueschke also a medical technologist and recall his thrill of visiting the Tesla museum.
My arrival in Chicago coincided with summer riots. They were sparked by the closing of fire hydrants, opened by residents to cool off in the city’s high temperatures. It was a long bus ride from the near west side to the Lake front (Michigan) where I was staying in the YMCA. Two years later when the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination broke, I was on the south side of Chicago. All hell broke loose and Chicago burned. It was a sad and frightening moment. The wave of riots in many northern cities momentarily brought prevention to the top of the agenda which included Fair Housing.
Martin Luther King set in motion a struggle to abrogate America's crime against blacks and to reconstruct American society. He was an advocate for the poor and spoke out against racial, health and economic injustice everywhere. These thoughts lead him to conclude that to raise the conscience of the American nation there is no alternative but to direct action with creative non-violence. His goal was to write off the bad check given to black America.
Vietnam changed the course of America and MLK changed the course of history in the 20th century. What MLK wanted to change lead to a tragedy of enormous proportions, not only for Americans but for all peoples. Viet Nam made peace and equality, vital. Martin Luther King made justice, civil and human rights much more important enabling such issues to penetrate the political agenda. The two issues pointed to a new enlightenment. What came was less bright than what was necessary then and now demanded today, when white supremacy has crafty political support, healthcare goes private for profit and turns predominantly therapeutic, naïvely less government is called for, Obamacare is under siege and vulnerability grows, suppression of rights of all types occurs and disenfranchisement of the poor and people of colour is a returning norm.
Racism is a mean occupant of our world and a major contributor to inequality. There is no better demonstration of this than the recent American elections, which give credence to doggerel in Dogwood Tree, which says: The negro now/By eternal grace/Must learn to stay in the negro's place/In the Sunny South, the land of the Free/Let the WHITE SUPREME forever be.
On MLK’s death, Robert Kennedy recited Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God and called upon Americans to dedicate themselves to the ancient Greek prescriptions of taming the savageness of man and making the life of this world gentler. Following his own assassination, the same quotation was inscribed on a memorial at the gravesite of Robert Kennedy.
Martin Luther King preached non-violent civil action based on Christian values. He was harassed and hit by police, stabbed in a shopping mall and finally gunned down in Memphis by a white supremacist and career criminal. President Kennedy allowed wiretapping and extensive use of surveillance against King. While outwardly based on the fear of Communist infiltration it was J Edgar Hoover’s attempt to undermine the civil rights movement and destroy its leader’s reputation.
Two other distinguished Afro-Americans, Paul Robeson (1898–1976) and Muhammad Ali, sandwich MLK in time. All three strove for the same dream, using different tactics and with different philosophies. They coalesced into one single goal, to end racism. However, many found MLK's safe path, unsafe.
Paul Robeson Singer-activist, son of a slave was outspoken against racism and fascism. After a stenographer refused to take dictation from a nigger Robeson gave up law. After four African-Americans were murdered in Georgia, he headed a march of three thousand delegates, met with president, Harry S. Truman, and demanded an American crusade against lynching with stronger federal action. In the paranoia of McCarthyism, 1950s he was blacklisted while his relationship with the USSR was highly controversial. His humanitarian beliefs were in stark t with Stalin’s state-sanctioned terror and mass killings. Certainly, Moscow failed as the Promised Land.
Unlike MLK, Robeson was not prepared to turn the other cheek when confronted with racist brutality. If a lyncher hit him on one cheek, he said he’d tear his head off before he could hit him on the other. Albert Einstein’s sympathy for the American Crusade against Lynching caused him to be labelled a communist sympathizer.
Muhammad Ali another great American was refused service in a soda fountain with sorry we don't serve coloreds. Having returnd from the Italian Olympics (1960), the coveted Olympic gold medal around his neck suddenly lost its meaning. Seeing his black brothers and sisters being treated wrongly in a country he had represented caused him to toss his medal into a river. At the age of 18 he was recruited by Malcolm X into the Nation of Islam. I remember the early years of Malcolm X College in Chicago hanging over the Eisenhower Expressway along which I was driving, when I heard of the attempt on the Pontiff’s life.
As a Muslim Ali became a conscientious objector refusing to go to Vietnam and in doing so took on the American system. as I entered America he was being vilified intensely by the Chicago press. It was a case of get-Cassius at all costs. The Governor of Illinois found Clay disgusting. The heavy weight champion of the world was sentenced to five years in prison, and released on appeal. His conviction was overturned three years later. His struggle raised the issue of why poor people in the United States should be used by the rich to kill poor people in Vietnam. His message to white Americans was simple, all that black people want is what you want for yourselves. He appealed to conscience. His message was one of black pride and resistance to white domination.
Harold Lee Washington was the first African–American to become Mayor of Chicago (1983). When my 13 year old Chicago born daughter heard this, she seemed to think things were getting better. Wow, she said when asked why, fancy that, Mr. Washington Mayor! Mr. Washington was the doorman for many years at Rush Presbyterian St. Luke’s’ Hospital. Edward Eckenfels when not raging and waging his personal war on poverty was extremely humorous. With my daughter’s appraisal of progress, he laughed long and hard.
50-years on from the martyrdom of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee (April 4, 1968) racism is very much alive and thriving. We may even be back from where he set out on his journey to Memphis. 2000 years on from when Saul left Damascus, the region is in turmoil, dictatorship prevails while forces internal and external are bent on exterminating the Kurds.
Some years ago in Belgrade Jesse Jackson kept his eyes peeled to the skies for falling NATO bombs as he sought the release of American prisoners. Jackson’s philosophy was the arc of history is long, but always bends towards justice. In Greece his eyes were locked on to the Olympic flame, symbol for peace and a reminder that struggle never ends. He recalled that the Olympic gold medallists Jesse Owens (1936, Berlin) and Mohammed Ali (1960, Rome) never gave up. Faith he told me is a weapon. It helped Moses cross the Red Sea, Mandela to deliver his own jailers and Dr. Martin Luther King to leave his rocky mountain of despair carrying gemstones of hope. Dr King redefined politics, turned society inside out and upside down. King was a remarkable man much larger than his myth who built a phenomenal movement.
Two years ago in the ECPD Balkan Youth Forum, Pula we paraphrased the Rev. Jesse Jackson saying: even though fields are hard to plough don’t give up, fight back. Use your fertile minds and strong bodies and special spirit to achieve your dreams.
“Preventionists” like Eckenfels in medicine have a hard time. never was this better expressed than on Capital Hill when two prestigious scientists testified on the issue of prevention of disease and health promotion. It has been said that to find anyone in government or in the medical world oriented to prevention is rare. The entry to testify of the great heart surgeon Denton Cooley caused a Senatorial stampede to touch his coat. D.A. Henderson a man who had saved millions through smallpox eradication sat ignored, waiting. His proposal to develop a network of health promoting and disease preventing institutions never made it. The Secretary of Health correctly predicted that the administrative plan was to promote prevention by spending as little as possible.
From I have a dream to, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhumane form of inequality to I am somebody to black lives matter seems that significant progress has been made. He lived up to his own intuition that he would never reach the Promised Land with his congregation.
Just as Jackson looked to the skies for bombs of destruction over Belgrade we should all keep our eyes peeled towards the determinants of hope that are losing ground to the take over of despair. Islamic-Americans without a champion of their world will face enormous difficulties, while undocumented immigrants will receive little help. The recent murder of a black, gay single mother, courageous fighter against racism and inequality in Brazil brought the comment she Marielle Franco had to resist, no wonder she didn’t survive. At two minutes to midnight, it will take more than a poor people’s campaign to ensure the future of the Americas. A new school children’s crusade may be the first best step. Maybe the children of America including the granddaughter of Dr. King can show America the true relationships between increasing numbers of road accidents with increasing number of miles driven by the fleet and that easy acquisition and numbers of guns push up death on the high street, in schools and in shopping malls. To paraphrase Barack Obama, the headlines of globalisation are at strange odds with the reality of history. Can either be changed?
• MLKing. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? 1967
• Donev, D., Laaser, U., Levett, J., Skopje Declaration on Public Health, Peace & Human Rights Dec 2001. Croat Med J. 2002; 43(2): 105–6 Adopted by World Federation of Public Health Associations, 2003
• Jeffrey Levett. Jesse Jackson speaks out, 2004 Athens News 25/Jun/2004
• Edward J. Eckenfels. Doctors serving people. Rutgers UP, 2008.
• Jeffrey Levett. Defective Democracy, Weak Governance. Proceedings of Peace and Democratic Multilateralism, Belgrade, 2017.
• Boaventura de Sousa Santos. Insidious Colonialism. Posted on 4/4/2018