By Briana Whiteside
Overshadowed by the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision, Simkins v. Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital does not receive the recognition it deserves. As Alondra Nelson notes in Body and Soul, “Although the Simkins medical desegregation case is less well-known, it is a reminder that health activism was intrinsic to the civil rights movement, despite the fact that the topic is often marginal to histories of black freedom” (24). This case was used as a stepping stone for the Black Panther Party (BPP) and how they would respond to the critical issue of health inequality.
In Chapter 1, entitled “African American Responses to Medical Discrimination Before 1966,” Nelson outlines the efforts of black activist groups to desegregate healthcare facilities. Although hospitals are no longer segregated, expensive insurance policies limit African Americans to under-resourced facilities and inadequate healthcare.
However, the politics of knowledge and activism provide a loop hole in understanding the avenues that need to be traveled in order to receive suitable healthcare. At least some groups of black people were able to challenge racial science and insufficient attention to African American well being.
Of course seeming contradictions persisted. “Even as social conditions gradually improved for African Americans," notes Nelson, "their health status remained excessively compromised compared to whites” (26). Despite the fact that advances were being made in other realms, black people were still forced to contend with health-related problems.
In efforts to educate black communities on these problems, African American activists set up informational sessions focusing on the importance of hygiene and sanitation. The BPP’s outreach of awareness helped spur other activist groups to join the fight of separate and unequal healthcare.
Related: URG: Notebook on Alondra Nelson's Body and Soul
Briana Whiteside is a graduate student in English at SIUE and a contributing writer for the Black Studies Program.