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Profiles in Courage: Embracing a Legacy of African American Health Leadership

By Colin Shott,


Throughout our nation’s long and complicated history, the experiences and achievements of past generations of African Americans have formed an indelible part of the tapestry of American life. Their threads are the traditions we embrace during Black History Month. From the life-saving pediatric innovations pioneered at Johns Hopkins by Dr. Vivien Thomas, to the groundbreaking research of Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones on the impacts of racism on the health and well-being of those who experience it, Black History Month presents us with an opportunity to appreciate better how these accomplishments have advanced our nation thus far.

In this task there is still far more work to be done, however, and Black History Month remains a moment that demands serious self-reflection in all Americans — as echoed in the immortal words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

This appalling inequality remains deeply rooted in our country today: where an African American woman is 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer; 52 percent more likely to die of cervical cancer; and three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related complication than her white peers.

The reasons for this widespread inequality are as substantial as they are numerous, but to succumb to despair would be to ignore the profound lesson in tenacity that generations of African American health advocates have taught us through the courage of their words, deeds, and sacrifices.

In 1965, this same courage motivated a committed band of African American volunteers to facilitate the desegregation of American hospitals via Medicare — removing the signs that separated “colored” from “white.”

In 1968, it drove Shirley Chisholm to become the first African American woman in Congress; and proclaim from the House floor that “Health is a human right, not a privilege to be purchased.”


In 2010, it brought together activists and lawmakers from across the country to work with the first African American President to ensure that those with pre-existing conditions will always have access to affordable care.

Moreover, it continues to lead. Just recently, it inspired Congresswoman Robin Kelly, the current head of the Congressional Black Caucus’s (CBC) Health Care Braintrust, to introduce the MOMMA’s Act, which promises to curtail the maternal mortality rate in this country dramatically.

These are but a few instances of the bravery and leadership we’ve witnessed from African American leaders throughout history and in the present day. The example they set reminds us that, while Black History Month may only last for a few weeks, our obligation to embody this tradition of courage shall never end if we are to bend the arc of the moral universe towards health equity for all.