As a part of the M. Alfred Haynes Lecture Series, Charles Drew University (CDU) hosted a screening for ‘Power to Heal: Medicare and the Civil Rights Movement,’ a documentary by Barbara Berney, on July 31 in the Keck Auditorium. The hour-long public television documentary details the story of the struggle to secure equal and adequate access to healthcare for all Americans. The documentary, narrated by Danny Glover, illustrates how Civil Rights Movement leaders and grassroots activists advocated for and collaborated with the federal government to achieve justice and fairness for African-Americans via the desegregation of healthcare.
Emboldened and legitimized by the “separate but equal” federal ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), racial segregation dictated every aspect of American life during the early half of the 20th century, and healthcare was no exception. Prior to the national rollout of Medicare, a national insurance program that played a pivotal role in hospital integration, disparities in access to hospital care were dramatic. Less than half the nation’s hospitals served Black and White patients equitably, and in the South, one-third of hospitals would not admit African-Americans at all. With this lack of access to mainstream medicine, African Americans often found themselves resorting to home remedies and opening their own facilities – however these facilities had few resources and little to no support from the U.S. Government.
African Americans did not only encounter barriers in accessing modern medicine – they faced barriers in practicing it as well. Following the closure of almost all Black medical schools in the early half of the 20th century, most Black doctors only trained at two institutions in the nation, Howard University and Meharry College. After completing their training, they were relegated to the poorest hospitals and charity wards in their regions and often had to rely on their white colleagues for the ability to admit patients to the hospital.
The introduction of Medicare and the funding that came along with it virtually ended the practice of racially segregating patients, doctors, medical staffs, blood supplies and linens in a matter of months. Though the federal government faced some resistance and non-compliance issues, primarily from southern states, over 90% of hospitals in the United States were integrated by the end of program’s initial rollout in 1965.
The film featured commentary from prominent figures in CDU’s history, such as former dean and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher and Sylvia Drew Ivie, current special assistant to the President. A Q&A session moderated by latter immediately followed the screening, and the audience was able to engage directly with the film’s creator, Barbara Berney and director Charles Burnett.