Tracking Down Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Words on Health Care

This weekend Americans will pause and remember Martin Luther King, Jr., and the many social justice reforms he championed. We should celebrate how far America has advanced since the 1960s, while we take stock of the challenges still before us.
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"Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane." -- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I first came across this powerful quotation in my role as a legal editor for Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy. I was editing Gordon Bonnyman's important article in the current issue of the Review, "Helping Hope and History Rhyme: Why and How Every Advocate Can Help Realize Health Care Reform," in which he asserts that the Affordable Care Act is the "most important civil rights milestone" since the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In his article, Bonnyman, the executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, predicts that the act "will close the racial gap in health coverage, which is a prerequisite for eliminating disparities in health care and health status."

As the Review's legal editors often do, I asked him to supply some sources to support his conclusion. He did so and elegantly introduced them with the above quotation from Dr. King. The quotation itself then needed a source, so I quickly searched for the speech or paper that included it.

Although the quotation was oft-repeated -- usually in connection with the debate over the Affordable Care Act or President Clinton's attempts at health care reform in the early 1990s -- it frequently appeared without further attribution. In the few times it was credited, it was listed as a statement Dr. King made in Chicago on March 25, 1966, to the second convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights. I tried several online search tools to find a copy of Dr. King's speech to this convention and even sought help from my husband, an academic librarian, who searched newspapers from around the time of the speech, hoping to find a quote from Dr. King's remarks.

In spite of our best efforts, I could not locate the actual text of this speech anywhere.

The genesis of Dr. King's statement on unequal health care began to appear uncomfortably similar to that of another famous MLK "quotation" from the year before: "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." After this strikingly apropos quotation spread like wildfire across social media in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, word spread -- albeit more slowly -- that the quotation was apocryphal, the result of a Facebook post that morphed as it was shared, the Internet version of the game "telephone." Could the same process have birthed another too-good-to-be-true quotation from Dr. King?

I sought out more experts who might be helpful in the search. I contacted Nancy Shawcross, the curator of manuscripts at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania, which houses the papers of the Medical Committee for Human Rights. Shawcross confirmed that Dr. King spoke at the 1966 convention, but she did not have the text of his remarks.

Next I tried the King Library and Archives at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. The archivist began to chuckle as I told her my quest. I was not the first person to call in search of a primary source for this quotation, but again, she had never come across a copy of Dr. King's remarks that day in Chicago.

I then tried the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. I communicated with Stacey Zwald Costello, an assistant editor there. She, too, had hunted for the roots of this quotation to no avail.

At this point, I was beginning to feel pretty confident that Dr. King never uttered these famous words. All occurrences of the quotation referenced other secondary sources, in a circular citation cycle with no beginning. Expert researchers could not track down its roots. And of course, the quotation itself was just so perfect to support the efforts of advocates seeking health care reform. It had "apocryphal" written all over it.

Still, at the suggestion of Zwald Costello, I contacted Professor John Dittmer, an award-winning historian who had included the quotation in his book The Good Doctors: The Medical Committee for Human Rights and the Struggle for Social Justice in Health Care. Dittmer, professor emeritus at Depauw University, recalled that he found the quotation in a newspaper clipping in the papers of the Medical Committee for Human Rights that were eventually donated to Penn. He said he had come to believe that no transcript or recording of the speech existed. He did, however, point me in a new direction, to someone who had heard Dr. King's remarks firsthand: Dr. Quentin Young of Chicago.

Young had been the chair of the Medical Committee for Human Rights in 1966, the year Dr. King spoke at the group's convention. I spoke to Young, and to my pleasant surprise, he confirmed that Dr. King had indeed made such a statement but noted that Dr. King actually called injustice in health care "inhuman," an adjective Young found stronger than the commonly (mis)quoted "inhumane." Young said that Dr. King was speaking spontaneously at the time. He could not direct me to a recording or transcript of the remarks but suggested that I speak to Dr. Ida Hellander, director of policy and programs at Physicians for a National Health Program. I did, and she, too, had looked for a primary source for the quotation but had never found it.

In the end, Dr. Quentin Young's account of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s remarks satisfied me, even if I did not have a source to cite. By this time, however, Gordon Bonnyman's article was already in print -- without the suspect quotation included.

Even without Dr. King's words to back him up, Bonnyman makes a strong case for why health care reform should be a priority for every legal services advocate, even those who don't consider themselves "health law attorneys." He points out that the Affordable Care Act will affect many people who come to legal services for reasons other than health care, such as consumer, domestic violence, housing, and veterans issues. He sees the current options for health reform -- including extending Medicaid coverage to new populations -- as advocacy opportunities that legal services programs cannot afford to miss.

In fact, states are deciding right now whether they will extend Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act to Americans with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level -- about $15,000 for a household of one. States that refuse to extend this health insurance to their less fortunate citizens are condemning them to live sicker and die sooner. Interestingly, the very place where Dr. King addressed the Medical Committee for Human Rights, Cook County, Ill., has already seized the opportunity to extend Medicaid coverage to a broader swath of its low-income residents.

This weekend Americans will pause and remember Martin Luther King, Jr., and the many social justice reforms he championed. We should celebrate how far America has advanced since the 1960s, while we take stock of the challenges still before us. And as we look at our health care system and its pending reforms, we should heed Bonnyman's call and consider what advocates can do to push our leaders to begin to eradicate injustice in health care, "the most shocking and inhuman" form of inequality.

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