Health Care Disparities, Dr. King and a Meeting Long Ago

Jan 13, 2012, 11:00 AM, Posted by

By Robert Wood Johnson Foundation President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA


In March 1966, only two years before he would be assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. uttered what I consider one of his most profound statements.

“Of all the forms of inequality,” he said, “injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

The quotation is never far from my mind. It embodies so much of the work we do at the Foundation—to narrow and then eliminate disparities in health care access, to improve the health of all Americans. But especially every January, as the holiday to honor the civil rights leader again comes around, his words seem to resonate even more. And they mix once again with some very personal memories.

I met Dr. King once. I was 7 years old, and he was in Seattle for the first and last time in his life. After speaking to a big crowd downtown, he and a group of ministers and friends went out to dinner and then came to my house. My mother, a native of Atlanta, had known Martin from childhood. His father had married my parents and buried my grandparents. And now he sat in our living room, and I got to say hello. It was a scene, and a moment, you just don’t forget.

Nearly half a century later, I believe Dr. King would be both cautiously hopeful and deeply distressed over our nation’s health and health care. He would support the significant changes under way to improve access and quality in our health care system, but he would not minimize the significant inequities that endure between Whites and other racial and ethnic groups.

He would urge us all to work harder and push farther to bring about justice in health care. And so we shall.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.