When Dr. Robert Smith was growing up in his hometown of Jackson, Miss., it was hard for most of the state’s residents to get high-quality health care.
For poor Blacks, it was even harder. Health services were almost non-existent in rural parts of the nearly 50-percent Black state. In cities with hospitals, access for Blacks was limited to Black wings or wards with limited services. Black people, like Smith, who aspired to become licensed health care providers — nurses, dentists and physicians — were required by state law to go to institutions outside the state, despite the state maintaining a medical and nursing school for White students.
Growing up as the civil rights movement of the last century was gathering force, Smith seized on the issue of agonizing health disparities as his civil rights concern. He decided to dedicate his life to improving the health of his fellow citizens and reducing health care disparities.
Today, evidence abounds that Smith has been succeeding. However, the 80-year-old Howard University Medical School graduate recently told an audience that much work remains to be done.
Observers of Smith’s work over the past decades say his fingerprints can be found on health care service improvements all over the state and nation.
“He was on the frontlines of equitable access to healthcare,” says Mississippi historian Dr. Robert Luckett, director of Jackson State University’s Margaret Walker Center. Smith was “as important” to the fight for health care equity as Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers were to political equity battles, says Luckett.
Indeed, Smith, who graduated from medical school in 1961, emerged in the early 1960s as a persistent advocate for health care equity just as the civil rights movement was getting more energized. In 1962, according to a summary of his history by the weekly Jackson Free Press, he became the volunteer Southern medical field director for the Medical Committee for Human Rights. The committee served as the medical arm of the Mississippi civil rights movement, according to the paper.
Determined to help fellow Mississippians get needed health care, Smith opened Central Mississippi Health Services in 1963. The centers had a policy of having an open door for anyone in need of medical help. The centers’ mission was to focus on servicing the indigent, underserved and uninsured.
Rates for service were set on a sliding scale based on a patient’s ability to pay. From the start, no person in need of care was refused service based on an inability to pay.
As he worked to eliminate racial barriers to health facilities, Smith became
one of the first Black physicians in Mississippi to receive privileges to get Black patients admitted to the more abundant and well equipped historically White hospitals across Mississippi, says Luckett.
Smith’s campaign for public community health centers has been succeeding in Mississippi and beyond. Today, Mississippi, which had no community health service centers when he began his efforts, has 21 community health care centers with mobile and public school extension sites.
Nationwide, there are approximately 1,000 community health centers. And federal and private programs support these centers financially.
In Mississippi and the rest of the nation, the open-door policy continues, helping thousands of people daily who need health care and cannot afford to pay.
For sure, community health services fill a niche in the nation’s health care services basket, as Smith is reminded routinely when he makes his medical rounds at the three health centers he is in charge of in Jackson.
Mississippi is among the states with the highest rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension, according to federal and state statistical studies. The state’s community primary health care centers serve some 300,000 people a year, according to the Mississippi Primary Health Care Association. That number is expected to grow as more people who need medical help learn that the centers are accessible and affordable.
Smith still sees patients on a regular basis and campaigns for expanded health care equity causes whenever he can.
Living his life in keeping with the old gospel standard, “May The Work I’ve Done Speak for Me,” Smith avoids public recognition of his work and pooh-poohs suggestions that he deserves special recognition for giving back to his community, say those who have reported on his history and achievements.
Several years ago, when the new parkway connecting the Jackson State University campus entrance to downtown Jackson was being built, Smith reportedly put up a polite fuss about the decision to name the new road Dr. Robert Smith Sr. Parkway. He reportedly said he did not need or want such recognition. His appeal apparently fell on deaf ears, as the city street bears his name today.
Others have honored his efforts and achievements. Last fall, Smith’s peers in the American Medical Association (AMA) awarded him the prestigious Medal of Valor “for repeatedly placing himself in harm’s way.” In his typical modest way, Smith said he was accepting the honor for his civil rights era colleagues … “I accept the award on behalf of my colleagues like Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and others, who fell along the way … Many veterans of the civil rights movement, with bloody and calloused hands and feet, deserve such honors,” he said.
“I know he has done a lot of good work,” says Dr. Mohammad Shahbazi, dean of the School of Public Health at Jackson State University, noting with admiration that Smith started his efforts before Shahbazi was born.
Smith was interviewed last December by The History Makers, a Black video oral history archive, after months of trying to get him to take a break from his daily routine to allow time for the chronicling of the history he has made. The interview with veteran network news correspondent Randall Pinkston, the first Black news anchor on broadcast television in Mississippi, had not run its course when Smith had to leave to get back to his medical work.
“The interview was excellent,” says Pinkston, who was a child when Smith started his campaign. “Dr. Smith had the opportunity to go almost anywhere in America to practice medicine after graduating from medical school. He made a deliberate decision to come back home to Mississippi to challenge racial discrimination in medicine.”
Among the points covered in the partial interview were the recollections of Smith’s work in the 1960s, helping provide health care to civil rights workers and his participation later that decade in a medical students’ and young medical professionals’ protest at a meeting of the American Medical Association.
The protest was part of an effort by Smith’s peers to get AMA to eliminate racial discrimination in its ranks. Last year, the group gave him its high honor.