Medical Committee for Human Rights records
Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
The Medical Committee for Human Rights (MCHR) was an organization of doctors, nurses, and other health care providers devoted to promoting civil rights, reaching out to minority groups, and improving the delivery of health services in the United States from 1964 to 1980. The group formed in New York City in 1963 as the Medical Committee for Civil Rights in response to requests from civil rights organizations, primarily the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO). Their initial purpose was to recruit health professionals to visit southern states and provide health services to civil rights activists, who were often unable to get adequate care from local services due to a combination of discrimination, lack of available facilities, and the physical danger they faced. MCHR also provided a medical presence at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
MCHR quickly expanded its program to include working against discrimination in medicine and providing health services to disadvantaged minority groups, primarily in the rural South. In 1964, the organization was incorporated as the Medical Committee for Human Rights in recognition that their goals extended beyond the sphere of the civil rights struggle.
According to the Medical Committee for Human Rights "Manual for Southern Medical Projects," in the summer of 1964, "more than 100 physicians, nurses, dentists, psychologists, and social workers volunteered their services as the supportive medical arm of the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi." These workers were not paid for their services during "Freedom Summer," but "provided emergency first aid, arranged for local medical care, secured hospitalization for sick and injured volunteers, and above all provided the presence of sympathetic health personnel in a hostile environment, including visits to jails, and participating in Civil Rights rallies." From 1964 to 1965, volunteer efforts expanded throughout the southern states beyond civil rights work. The MCHR maintained offices in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, although volunteers were active across the United States. Alvin Poussaint was hired as southern project director of the Jackson office in order "to deal with the health problems facing thousands of poor blacks who lacked any medical services," (Dittmer, John, AMA Journal of Ethics. MCHR efforts in the South included working to desegregate hospitals; operating a free clinic in Mileston (Holmes County), Mississippi; establishing the Healthmobile, a van outfitted as an autonomous health center in rural areas; and working towards comprehensive community health care.
In the late 1960s, as the civil rights movement waned, the MCHR re-focused their work. In addition to working for those with substandard health care, members of MCHR "opposed the Vietnam War, opened free clinics in inner cities (sometimes in cooperation with the Black Panthers), pressured medical schools to enroll more black students, and supported a woman's right to choose long before Roe v. Wade," (Dittmer, AMA Journal of Ethics). In 1968, MCHR volunteers attended the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and provided health services to protesters at the convention.
During the early 1970s, volunteers, led by national chairman, Quentin Young, launched their National Health Plan, a proposal for a single class of health care for all Americans featuring equality between the different branches of medicine and consumer control of health care through government and community intervention. Other proposals by a number of organizations, political groups, and individuals including the American Medical Association (AMA), Nixon's Family Health Insurance Program (FHIP), Nelson Rockefeller, and Senator Edward Kennedy (Health Security Act), were made, but the MCHR deemed them unacceptable, seeking "not national health insurance, but a national health service" (Dittmer, The Good Doctors, page 244).
The MCHR was dissolved in 1980, but it "left its mark on American history and provided a model for organizations that succeeded it … and the continuing social activism of its former members" (Dittmer, AMA Journal of Ethics).
Dittmer, John. The Good Doctors: The Medical Committee for Human Rights and the Struggle for Social Justice in Health Care. (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009).
Dittmer, John. "The Medical Committee for Human Rights." AMA Journal of Ethics. September 2014, Vol. 16, No. 9, pages 745-748. (http://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/2014/09/mhst1-1409.html)
Medical Committee for Human Rights, "Manual for Southern Medical Projects" (http://www.crmvet.org/docs/mchr.pdf)
The collection on the Medical Committee for Human Rights came to the University of Pennsylvania from Walter J. Lear's Institute of Social Medicine and Community Health. The collection is made up of 64 boxes of material, including administrative records, papers of members, financial records, program work, subsidiary groups, events, publications, publicity, and a file on other organizations. It contains minutes, correspondence, and other manuscripts as well as some printed publications and articles. The collection documents the early years of MCHR most thoroughly, and provides less information about the later 1970s.
The Administration series contains material pertaining to the establishment and operations of MCHR. The series contains information about the earlier Medical Committee for Civil Rights, and also the incorporation, constitution, and bylaws of the group as the Medical Committee for Human Rights. The papers of the Executive Committee and the National Governing Council include correspondence and minutes of meetings that determined the direction of MCHR. The Organizational Priorities file contains essays regarding MCHR's future, including the platforms of such groups as the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Third World Caucus, and the People's Health Coalition. The National Program file contains further writings on subjects that MCHR prioritized. The National Office and Office Notes files reveal the ever-changing state of affairs at MCHR's national office as it moved about the country and, in some years, temporarily ceased operating entirely.
The Papers of Members series contains more information about MCHR in the correspondence and published writings of the organization's officers. This Officers sub-series is organized chronologically within each position, and the more complete files, such as National Chairman, provide a good overview of the organization's activities. At least some of the gaps in these series are a result of changes in MCHR's operations, and not solely the result of incomplete records (for example, see Apendix 1). The Other Members sub-series is organized alphabetically, and it includes additional folders for some individuals who served as officers. Documents have been filed in Officers or Other Members based on the content of each document.
The Financial series contains the financial records of MCHR. These include records of MCHR's fundraising efforts, including parties and other general fundraising events, but not including fundraising relating to specific MCHR publications, which can be found in the Publications series. There are also files for grants MCHR received, notably a multi-year grant from the United Automobile Workers in the late 1960s, and funds that MCHR gave to other organizations. Files on income and expenses, bills, bill payment, taxes, and a large number of receipts round out the series. Correspondence regarding unpaid bills and later also unpaid taxes offer a glimpse of the financial insecurity that MCHR struggled with.
The Program Work series contains papers specific to individual programs run by MCHR at the national level. Papers are sorted into the three sub-series depending on the nature of the work. The Southern Programs sub-series contains programs that were run by MCHR in the South. The Work With Other Organizations sub-series contains similar material, but follows MCHR's work in collaboration with other groups. The Issues sub-series contains MCHR projects that were organized around specific parts of their national program. Notable programs include their work on improving health services at the community level, attempting to establish a national health insurance system, and also supporting the rights of prisoners and the mentally ill. In general MCHR's individual projects were limited either in time or geography, but together they paint a picture of a national organization working on many fronts.
The Regional series contains minutes, correspondence, publications, publicity, and all other papers relating to MCHR programs carried out by chapters and regional groups. There is a connection to other collections from the Institute of Social Medicine and Community Health in Chapters - Maryland, where there is some correspondence with scientist and activist Ruth Bleier (see Ms. Coll. 616), and there is a connection to the University of Pennsylvania in Chapters - Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania.
The Events series contains papers related to MCHR involvement in events of their own and also those organized by other groups. These include lectures on topics ranging from discrimination in American medicine to development of health services in the third world; conferences on issues such as discrimination and health; anniversaries, which contain retrospectives of MCHR; and the National Convention files (see Appendix 2). The 1975 and 1978 National Conventions are particularly important, as they include information about the split in MCHR between the Revolutionary Communist Party members and their more moderate opponents.
The Publications series contains complete files for MCHR's publications, sometimes including correspondence, publicity, fundraising, and budget information. It includes MCHR's long-running, if intermittent publications MCHR News, about MCHR, and Health Rights News, about the health industry. It also contains many shorter-lived publications, such as Office News, The Torch, and The Body Politic, which illustrate the ephemeral nature of many MCHR projects.
The MCHR Publicity series contains pamphlets promoting MCHR and also news clippings that were about the organization as a whole rather than a single issue or event. It also includes a chronological file of press releases from the national office, which tend to focus on MCHR's work against racism and in support of national health insurance, as well as MCHR's criticism of the American Medical Association on both counts.
Unlike the rest of the collection, the last two series look at the health movement outside of MCHR. The Press Coverage of Health Issues series contains articles and news clippings collected by MCHR about a variety of issues of interest to them that were not necessarily part of the national program. The Other Organizations series contains documents from other organizations that were of interest to MCHR. These include major professional organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association; selected state and local government bodies; churches; medical organizations similar to MCHR; and political organizations ranging from the Young Lords to the Ku Klux Klan. Particularly noteworthy are the Council of Health Organizations, which was a coalition of MCHR, The Physicians Forum, and Physicians for Social Responsibility, and also the 1012 Crisis Center, a drug and community health clinic in Syracuse, NY that was started with the help of MCHR members.
Gift of Walter J. Lear; Institute of Social Medicine and Community Health, 2006.
- Political activists
- Physicians -- United States -- Political activity
- Civil rights movements -- United States
- Health and race -- United States
- Medical care -- United States
- Health insurance
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Christopher Segal
- Finding Aid Date
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This collection is open for research use.
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