The Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the Black Panther Party

This month marks the 42nd anniversary of the revelation of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

On July 25, 1972, Associated Press reporter Jean Heller disclosed in the New York Times that the United States Public Health Service had been conducting a clinical experiment on black men in Macon County, Alabama. Beginning 1932, these close to 400 share-croppers were left untreated for the disease that can decimate the body in its late stages, despite the fact that antibiotic treatment had been available for decades. Heller wrote: “For 40 years, the U.S. Public Health Service has conducted a study in which human guinea pigs, not given proper treatment, have died of syphilis and its side effects.”

The Tuskegee tragedy (recently described in a stellar book by Susan Reverby) has come to exemplify health inequality and racial discrimination in medicine. Numerous studies  show that public awareness of the syphilis study has had a residual, negative impact on healthcare practices. Blacks, in particular, have developed a strong distrust of mainstream medicine and clinical research that is attributed to past abuses–and, especially this exploitative study.

Harriet Washington’s award-winning book Medical Apartheid was an urgent reminder that African Americans’ apprehensions about biomedicine were both abiding and perfectly warranted. In other words, if we take a longer historical view, the Tuskegee study is an important symbol, but it was not the first or even the most appalling instance of medical discrimination. As Washington notes, such practices have extended “from the colonial era to the present.”

The Black Panthers’ foray into health politics also suggests to us that we need to rethink how important “the shadow of Tuskegee” was in shaping black consciousness about the healthcare sector. As I describe in Body and Soul, the Party’s activism began several years before Tuskegee became a national scandal. In these preceding years, the Black Panthers, drawing on a tradition of African American health activism, identified and condemned the issues that are now attributed to the the public revelation of the syphilis study. They argued that:

  • the healthcare needs of blacks were neglected–to the point that a systematic plan of racial genocide was feared (as this provocative and somewhat hyperbolic statement below from an August 1972 issue of its newspaper shows)
  • the poor were relegated to pitiable healthcare services at the hands of callous, inexperienced doctors
  • African Americans were treated as guinea pigs in biomedical encounters

Today, we should recall the sacrifice of the 399 poor black men and their families who were exploited by medical researchers–American citizens abused by agents of their own state. As former President Clinton said in his national apology to these men: “It was a time when our nation failed to live up to its ideals, when our nation broke the trust with our people that is the very foundation of our democracy… today America does remember the hundreds of men used in research without their knowledge and consent. We remember them and their family members. Men who were poor and African American, without resources and with few alternatives, they believed they had found hope when they were offered free medical care by the United States Public Health Service. They were betrayed.”

Tuskegee embodied the longstanding fears and inequalities that had been given voice, shape and torque by the Black Panther Party and prior health activists. If these apprehensions are more historically deep-seated than commonly believed, what similarly intensive solutions are necessary to achieve health access and equality? How can our responses to the crisis in racial health disparities turn the tide of mistrust?

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This entry was posted in Body and Soul, BPP, citizenship contradictions, Tuskegee. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the Black Panther Party

  1. Gerri says:

    I am glad to see mention of the 40th anniversary of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study on this blog. It is a shameful event in the history of medical research and uncovered the continuing ugly truths about the stance taken with regard to the black body. No major media that I am aware of created a space for this remembrance. Yet, in June the media was replete with reports on the 40th
    anniversary of Watergate and all it portended.

    Part of the answer to the lingering question the blog posed is, I believe, rooted in preventive health. It is imperative to impart to as many as will listen the need for a serious undertaking to educate and act on what nourishes the body and what deprives it. This is one of many salient issues African Americans can address regarding the multifactor crisis in racial health disparities.

    • Thank you, Gerri. I was also very surprised that the anniversary of this tragic revelation went mostly unmentioned in the media, especially because its effects continue to reverberate today.

  2. Pingback: The Tuskegee Experiments: What Really Happened? | The Kim Brown Show

  3. I am sure you know this already, but perhaps you readership might find something that might rang a bell.
    I have not read your book, but I did catch some of your comments on Berkeley’s KPFA. You made references to the Black Panther Party, which I was a member. I functioned between Seattle and Oakland from 1969 to 72 and we started up numerous programs, including the fight against Sickle Cell Anemia, the deadly blood disease that is found largely amongst Blacks and Africans, which the government knew all about but failed to spend a cent to educate and treat the victims who were suffering from this disease. It was only when we (the Party) embarrassed the government in the implementation of our grassroots health care campaign by which the government failed to acknowledge the problem, just as today’s it fails to acknowledge the problem and do something about the foreclosures of people homes.
    So I don’t think anything short of People Organized Power, organizing from the bottom up, where the victims assume the responsibility for learning about what they can do to change these negative attitudes that we can’t change our situ. You can take a mule to the well but you can’t force them to drink, right? While no one alone can do the job; but with the participation of the victims, we can possible build a movement that constantly agitating the people.

    Melvin Dickson
    Former Black Panther member

    • Thank you for this note, Melvin. In case you might be interested, an entire chapter of Body and Soul is devoted to the BPP’s sickle cell anemia activism. I would love to hear your feedback about it.

  4. Pingback: Little Known American History Fact: The Tuskegee Study and African American Men | emmjaeargh's Blog

  5. Pingback: The Tuskegee Experiments: What Really Happened? [AUDIO] | The Kim Brown Show

  6. idreese says:

    Reblogged this on DARE White PPL.

  7. Pingback: 3rd Eye OraclePineal and Penile Protection | 3rd Eye Oracle

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