Black Miss. doctors offered apology

By Jerry Mitchell

Clarion Ledger Newspaper
Jackson, MS

July 22, 2009

The Mississippi Academy of Family Physicians voted unanimously Tuesday to support an apology for past racial discrimination.

"Family physicians are setting a positive role for medicine in Mississippi again," said Dr. Ron Myers, a family physician who practices in Moorhead. "It's a wonderful step in a positive direction."

He said the academy, a statewide professional association of more than 1,000 members, is the first group of Mississippi physicians he's aware of to support an apology that mirrors the one given by the American Medical Association.

The Mississippi resolution expresses "regret over times in the past that any member of this academy may have fostered racial inequity, whether it was by engaging in actions that promoted racial inequity or by inaction in not supporting racial equity."

The academy also agreed to promote equity "in this state, racial and otherwise, while striving to fulfill our mission of improving the physical, emotional, social and spiritual health of the people of Mississippi."

Last year, AMA President Dr. Ronald Davis wrote that the organization had failed, "across the span of a century, to live up to the high standards that define the noble profession of medicine. ... Although current members of a group might bear little or no responsibility for past actions, a group apology makes clear the groupís current moral orientation. Acknowledging past wrongs lays a marker for understanding and tracking current and future actions."

Historian John Dittmer is the author of the new book, "The Good Doctors: The Medical Committee for Human Rights and the Struggle for Social Justice in Health Care," that describes how black doctors overcame the AMA's rejection of them becoming members.

He noted it wasn't until 1965 that Dr. Aaron Shirley, then noted for his medical practice in Vicksburg, became the first African American to be accepted into residency at the University Medical Center in Jackson.

Forty years later, Shirley established the Jackson Medical Mall, which provides health care for thousands of African Americans. One of the tenants is UMC.

Dittmer said the acknowledgement of past wrongs is "a long time coming, but at the same time, they didn't have to say anything."

Myers said the whole time that academy members were voting Tuesday, he was thinking of the late Dr. Gilbert Mason of Biloxi, who in 1970 became the first African-American member of the academy.

Mason had been working as a family physician in Biloxi since 1955. Some white colleagues refused to call him doctor, recalled his son, Dr. Gilbert Mason Jr. of Biloxi. "They would call him Mason or Gilbert."

When a Mississippi physicians' group refused to seat Mason, several of his white colleagues walked out with him to show their support of him.

Even after he was finally allowed to practice medicine at the old Biloxi Hospital, he didn't get full privileges until two decades later, his son said.

One day after delivering a baby at the hospital, he was sitting when a man spilled coffee on him, admitting he had done it on purpose. "He dropped him with a punch," his son said.

There was a murmur of sanctions against him, but they never took place.

Mason spent his lifetime breaking down barriers, which he described in his 2000 book, "Beaches, Blood and Ballots: A Black Doctor's Civil Rights Struggle."

Eight months before the lunch counter sit-ins of Greensboro, N.C., grabbed headlines in 1960, Mason and eight others waded in the Mississippi Sound.

Their arrests never made national news, nor did Mason's solitary swim on April 17, 1960.

Outraged by his arrest, students volunteered to join Mason in a wade-in, and when news made it to Klansmen, they burned wooden crosses on the shore.

The next Sunday, Mason showed up with 50 others. Hundreds of white men attacked them with chains, iron pipes and anything else they could grab.

By night, the violence escalated into a full-scale riot in Biloxi in which white gangs preyed on random black victims. Two were killed, and more than 20 were injured in the continuing violence.

Mason survived and continued to push to end second-class citizenship for African Americans. "His courage was unparalleled," his son said.

Asked what his father would say about the apology, he replied, "I'm sure he would say glibly, 'It's about time.' "

To comment on this story, call Jerry Mitchell at (601) 961-7064.

Rev. Ronald V. Myers, Sr., M.D., Founder & Chairman
The Myers Foundation
P.O. Box 269    Belzoni, MS 39038
662-247-3364    662-247-1471
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