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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Health ✪ Part 3 Civil Rights and the Body Politic

Sarah L. Berry //  “Racism is a public health threat,” declared Dr. Lisa Cooper in a recent webcast. Over just a few months, COVID-19 exposed racial disparities in health on a national stage, helped ignite organized national protest over police violence against Black Americans,[i] and illuminated a link between persistent economic inequality (i.e., essential workers in low-income jobs) and racial disparities in health (such as comorbidities adding to COVID-19 disease burden). The public response to these linked issues has spurred legislation in some areas, including the banning of “no-knock” warrants in the city of Louisville, Kentucky, and in other places, creating accountability protocols for police. While police reform has been passed into law quickly, changes in healthcare policy have been temporary; for example, New York State passed anti-chokehold laws but only waived coronavirus treatment co-payments temporarily during the spring 2020 peak.

Heightened attention to racial health disparities and organized civil rights protest are not only linked in today’s pandemic but also occurred several times before in U.S. history. Part 1 and Part 2 of this series examined nineteenth-century links among health, antislavery protest, women’s entrance into professional medicine, and social change. This post examines a resurgence of these linked issues after World War II. Public campaigns highlighting patterns of ongoing racial violence and discrimination and their effects on health, often led by Black American women, sparked and carried forward the Civil Rights movement, and this pattern has a lot in common with current anti-racism protests following closely upon the initial wave of COVID-19. [Content warning: the following text contains explicit details of racially-motivated violence during the past and present.]

Bodies in Black and White

In the summer of 1955, Mamie Till had a decision to make that would change the course of a Civil Rights movement that was gaining steam in the aftermath of World War II. On a visit with cousins in Mississippi, her 14-year-old son Emmett had been beaten, shot, tied with barbed wire to a 75-pound industrial fan, and thrown into a river. When his body was recovered 3 days later, it was swollen beyond recognition. His face, teeth, and head were mangled; his ear was severed, and his eye had come out of its socket (Brown). Two white men had murdered him on a false allegation of sexual advance from a white woman (Tyson). The men were acquitted; the woman never faced charges. What Mrs. Till decided was that her son would have an open casket. Photos of his brutalized body lying in the coffin were published in Jet magazine, inciting a national outrage that prompted the preparation (but not passing) of anti-lynching legislation.[ii]

Mrs. Till’s decision nationally publicized the state-sanctioned, extrajudicial violence that had killed not only her young son but also tens of thousands of other men and boys. While lynching was common in the South, Mrs. Till made change by reframing it and then circulating to a national viewership the centuries-old power dynamic that offered a spectacle of white-on-Black violence to a local, complicit audience (such as lynching parties), aided by local custom and law. The specter of violence, sickeningly visible through a boy’s mutilated corpse, illustrated the threat that all Black American boys experienced daily—and along with them, their mothers, fathers, and communities. This mother was one of several women who, early in the movement, perceived the powerful links among racism, physical violence, mental distress, and the chronic vulnerability of Black Americans. Her choice to display her son’s body through national media became a major impetus for larger social change.[iii]


The Civil Rights movement gained traction after World War II for specific reasons. During the war, women and Black men experienced higher social and economic status. Women worked in men’s jobs stateside and joined the military; Black and Indigenous men served in integrated units. That major leap in U.S. racial equality was engineered in 1941 by the NAACP, which planned a march to force Franklin Delano Roosevelt to ban (by law) racial discrimination in military employment on the eve of entering the war; FDR complied to avoid the march (Kauffman 8). Afterward, women and returning Black American soldiers were resubordinated to traditional roles. Women returned to the home and new policies amped up to resegregate public spaces and economic, housing, and healthcare access during the prosperous post-war years. Redlining, the allotment of FHA loans to whites only, and segregated healthcare were overtly experienced daily and enforced by law.

An early landmark in organized protest of segregation was the Montgomery bus boycott. A few months after Emmett Till’s funeral, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on the bus. She was arrested; the Women’s Political Council organized a boycott campaign over a weekend, distributing thousands of paper notices that rallied the Black community to avoid taking the bus (Black Americans made up about 75% of bus customers). The strike lasted 381 days and ended with the Supreme Court ruling that bus segregation is unconstitutional. Trained in nonviolent civil disobedience, Parks was specifically influenced to act by Emmett Till’s murder and the gang rape of teenager Recy Taylor, which she had investigated for the NAACP ten years earlier. Witnessing physical violence and organizing protest were inextricably linked for the women who led Civil Rights activism.    

Public protest during the Civil Rights movement also exposed Black Americans to more violence, whether in public demonstrations threatened by police and citizen retaliation or behind closed doors. The political work of Fannie Lou Hamer is inextricably tied to her physical and mental trauma. Her slogan “sick and tired of being sick and tired” neatly captures both the long-term health effects of institutionalized poverty and the acute injuries of police brutality, as well as the literal effects of medical racism. In 1963, Hamer was returning by bus from a training session with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when she was beaten and sexually assaulted by police. A year later, she told this story of police assault, which left her with permanent eye and liver damage and a limp, at the televised Democratic Convention; Lyndon Johnson intercepted the broadcast with an impromptu one of his own, but recordings of Hamer’s testimony circulated over television anyway. Hamer had already been active—and punished—for attempting to register to vote, and her activism career included working for voter registration, founding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge all-white state representation in Congress (she also ran for a seat), and founding the Freedom Farm Cooperative to empower Black farm workers who were subjugated to sharecropping exploitation. She frequently framed her efforts in terms of the violence she had already survived—turning the shamefulness of beating women back on the police—and professed a willingness to lay down her life to make change.

Medically, Hamer’s life also testifies to medical racism and structural inequality. Before her beating by police, Hamer had survived what she termed a “Mississippi Appendectomy”—the removal of her uterus without her consent while she was in surgery for another procedure. Forced sterilization occurred frequently in the Civil Rights era, causing families psychological distress on top of barriers to health enforced by segregated hospitals and the continuing grind of poverty- and discrimination-induced health disparities. Sadly, Hamer died at age 59 of heart disease and breast cancer, two preventable conditions that affect Black Americans at roughly double the rate of whites today due to screening and treatment barriers.

Health and wellness disparities caused by structural inequalities were recognized by Civil Rights leaders, but spectacles of racialized violence were better crystallizations of a massive, daily problem invisible to privileged classes. Spectacles of bodily harm catalyzed change. Till’s open casket, Parks’s extreme vulnerability to physical attack, and Hamer’s televised testimony of police violence at the Democratic Convention all created momentum. Women were often the leaders and initiators of this movement to reframe violence so as to end its threat against their sons, daughters, and husbands—and the American public could no longer look the other way.

Through the work of Black American women leaders, a new counterpublic was forged in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Counterpublics, or “networks of debate created by marginalized members of the public” (Jackson et al. xxxiii), are fundamental to the social revolutions in which health and civic reform intertwine. Structural inequality is often invisible to privileged groups, but marginalized people can make it visible with a collective effort to create counternarratives, reframe issues, and state demands using media available to them. A movement is made up of this process of iterations over space and time around defined issues. The Civil Rights movement grew in numbers and tactics and advanced very public male leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Huey P. Newton. Their work was founded on Black American women’s resistance and organizing work.

A Third Revolution

A third health and human rights revolution is underway in 2020. In these first months of COVID-19, Americans self-identifying in diverse ways are all discovering that health is a privilege. Safety is a privilege. The length and quality of your life depends on your ZIP code. Public health experts and medical sociologists have long known these facts and continue to hone their methods to study population health and communicate this knowledge, as in Dr. Cooper’s public education about racism as a public health threat. While the nineteenth century witnessed a revolution that precipitated the Civil War and the twentieth-century Civil Rights movement built upon the foundations of a social experiment of gender and racial integration during a world war, in our twenty-first-century moment, a global pandemic has reignited Civil Rights activism.

Despite the gains of the Civil Rights movements, Black and Brown bodies have continuously endured the highest risk for both disease and state-sanctioned violence. And in the decades following desegregation, this continued violence has been made visible by evolving forms of mass technology. The beating of Rodney King during a traffic stop in 1991 was not, unfortunately, an isolated incident among Black American men, but the recording of this state-sanctioned act on new videocamera technology and its mass circulation were new.

A few decades later, in 2011, cell phones with cameras and social media applications enabled the Occupy movement (which had been sparked by the Arab Spring); new movements were begun by women witnessing police violence (like #BlackLivesMatter founded by Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi) and sexual assault (#MeToo, founded by Tarana Burke). Through networking media like Facebook and Twitter, citizen documentation of white-on-Black violence, such as with Trayvon Martin, and police violence, such as with Eric Garner in New York City, allowed for patterns to show, counterpublics to form around reframed narratives, and those narratives to be amplified on a national stage outside of state media control. Once underway, in 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown’s murder on camera incited protests in Ferguson; although the protests remained local and were squashed by the U.S. military, they were televised nationally, and a larger movement gained momentum.

In May 2020, George Floyd’s murder by asphyxiation by police over the course of seven minutes, on camera, sparked national protests. The conditions were in place for this particular recording of ongoing police violence—as well as those of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor—to plug in to the Movement for Black Lives. Mainstream media coverage of health disparities during the first months of COVID-19 has provided the necessary acknowledgement of far-reaching structural inequalities based on race that early leaders in Civil Rights generated by using their own bodies and those of their loved ones as testimonies.

Your bones feel like they’re made out of blood”

Movements for social change require the reframing of normalized inequity and utterance of demands on a repeated basis: lunch counter sit-ins over months and years, across a broad geographical spread; marches against police violence in cities and towns from Honolulu and Anchorage to Seattle, Chicago, and New York City. A long view of U.S. citizen revolutions raises crucial questions: What conditions make enduring, routinized structural inequality tip over into social and policy changes? Why is public violence to bodies of color a common spark of change over three centuries? The investigation of these questions will be part of a larger project. For now, this post will close with a look at the collateral effect on Black American communities of organizing around mass-circulated images of violence to individuals.

In the currently unfolding intersections among public health, police violence, and COVID-19 disparities, Crystal Milner interviewed her friends and family in southern California about their mental health—a topic she acknowledges is still often taboo in Black American communities. One interviewee, 28-year-old Timnit, described this psychosomatic response: “I’ve felt very heavy, like your bones feel like they’re made out of blood. Like you don’t want to move. You suddenly are struck with grief in the middle of the day. It’s an unfathomable pain. It’s an unfathomable grief that is really hard to sit in and is really discomforting to deal with.” Timnit’s testimony connects with generations past—echoing Hamer’s slogan “sick and tired of being sick and tired” of Black American foremothers of the Civil Rights movement. The incantatory rhythm of Timnit’s testimony, turning around a simile of bones turned to blood, makes the weariness and grief palpable, graspable to others whether or not they identify with George Floyd or Breonna Taylor.

Poet Tiana Clark captures the experience of vicarious stress for the extended community of survivors of men like Walter Scott who are slain by police, emphasizing the ways in which media documentation virtually perpetuates racial violence:

A video looping like a dirge on repeat, [. . .  ]
I see you running, then drop, heavy hunted like prey with eight shots in the back.
[. . . . ]

let’s become his children, let’s call him
Papa. Let us chant Papa don’t run! Stay, stay back! Stay here with us. But Tiana–
you have got to stop watching this video. Walter is gone & he is not your daddy,
another story will come to your feed [. . . ]  (Broken Ghazal for Walter Scott, ll. 1-2, 9-12)

Clark’s poem testifies to vicarious trauma, anxiety by affiliation, that may be invisible to those who do not identify as Black American. Additional issues surround the bodily spectacle driving social justice movements. Survivors of publicly shared violent deaths, such as the family of George Floyd, are not able to properly mourn their loved one. Eric Garner’s daughter died young, after giving birth, from stress-related health problems following the trauma of her father’s public death. These stressors of affiliation and survivorship in turn connect with other health disparities. In particular, the current wider public attention to health disparities during COVID-19 represents progress, on one hand, by virtue of the fact that the mainstream press has acknowledged it, but on the other hand, this amplification of the problem also confirms and worsens a sense of marginalization for people of color.

A movement for justice and health for all needs to attend to racism as a public health threat in the many senses of the relationship between race and public health. Today’s mainstream media have revealed health disparities often hidden by dominant groups: coronavirus and police violence disproportionately harm people of color. Less apparently, the media can actually amplify distress while making positive calls for change. Healthcare must therefore not only move toward universal coverage but also be equipped to help people of color who experience bodily and psychological stressors specific to the intersection of antiracist protest and COVID-19.

Works Cited

Brown, Deneen. “Emmett Till’s mother opened his casket and sparked the civil rights movement.” Washington Post. 12 July 2018. Accessed 21 July 2020.

Clark, Tiana. “Broken Ghazal for Walter Scott.” Muzzle ( Accessed 22 July 2020.

Jackson, Sarah J., Moya Bailey, and Brooke Foucault Welles. #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice. MIT Press, 2020. DOI: Accessed 21 July 2020.

Kauffman, L.A. How to Read a Protest: The Art of Organizing and Resistance. University of California Press, 2018.

Milner, Crystal. “‘It just weighs on your psyche’: Black Americans on mental health, trauma, and resilience.” STAT News. 6 July 2020. Accessed 26 July 2020.

Tyson, Timothy B. The Blood of Emmett Till. Simon & Schuster, 2017.


[i] Racial terminology is always politically valenced and contextually specific. This post refers to people of African descent as “Black” in respectful solidarity with the current Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), of which Black Lives Matter is a branch, and will capitalize Black in keeping with the Black empowerment movement that emerged during Civil Rights. The term “Black” is more inclusive of all people of African diaspora than “African American.” White will be kept in lower-case so that it does not signal a sense of white supremacy or white nationalism.

[ii] Seventy years earlier, journalist Ida B. Wells began a campaign to document tens of thousands of lynchings in the U.S., adding testimony upon testimony to the brutality and extralegal incidents of violence, revealing patterns that exposed white racism and the innocence of victims. Her efforts produced a bill, but it was defeated in the Senate. See Wells, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, for a full account of her career, including her role in co-founding the NAACP, and her social justice work.

[iii] Yet despite the resurgence of civil rights protest against police violence in recent weeks, as of July 27, 2020, the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act, which would make lynching a federal crime, has been blocked in 2020 from passing into law.

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