The University Record, January 23, 1996

Elders: Don't wait for a backbone transplant to get started

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services 

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would "shed tears for a nation that has replaced its social safety net with a dragnet."

He would find an American society that builds more prisons than schools and spends more money on criminals than students. He would discover a country rife with impoverished children, youth violence, teen pregnancies and a drug war that has become "a war on young Black men." He would encounter a nation bereft of health education, adequate health care, family values and job security.

In spite of King's great legacy, "many of us are still at the midnight of his dream, never having seen the dawn."

That is the crux of the message delivered by former Surgeon General M. Joycelyn Elders at last week's MLK Memorial Lecture before a capacity crowd at Hill Auditorium.

"We need to begin to look at some of the things we're doing," said Elders, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Arkansas Medical School and the first African American and second female to serve as U.S. surgeon general.

"We have to break down the barriers that we've erected over the years and begin to build bridges over our rivers of ignorance, racism, sexism, turfism, skepticism and homophobia. These were the things that Dr. King's dream was all about."

Elders, whose tenure as surgeon general was marked with controversy surrounding her views on providing condoms to teens, studying the legalization of drugs and universal health care, said that it is important to fight for what is right, even if the struggle is futile.

"I had a wonderful experience as surgeon general," she said, tongue-in-cheek. "I didn't go to Washington to get a job. I went to do the job and if I wasn't going to do the job, I could have stayed home in Arkansas. Nothing is worse than having somebody fill up the space of a job if you're not going to do it."

As surgeon general, Elders said she fought for improving the health of Americans by pushing for health education in schools and supporting health care for everyone.

"In this country, we feel that every criminal has a constitutional right to a lawyer, but we don't feel that every sick person has a right to a doctor," said Elders, who added that educating people to take care of their health is less costly than treating them after they become sick.

Likewise, Elders, who has been called the "Condom Queen," believes that providing preventive measures, such as condoms, to sexually active teens would help alleviate the problems of unwanted pregnancies and HIV.

"Children see sex all the time on TV and there's absolutely never any consequences," she said. "You can't get HIV and they usually don't get pregnant. Yet, we refuse to teach our children.

"We decide that we don't want any health education at school because if we tell them about it, they'll do it. But they're already doing it. We need to stop trying to legislate morals and start teaching responsibility."

Elders, who believes the best contraceptive is a good education, said that parents must teach their children about health issues, as well as other family values. She conceded, though, that a byproduct of America's growing moral decay---the dysfunctional family---may contribute to widespread ignorance.

The country's moral decline, Elders said, is evident in an array of alarming statistics---the prison population has quadrupled in the past decade; gun stores now outnumber gas stations and grocery stores; the homicide rate for young Black men is 47 times higher than that of any other country; 30 percent of young Black men are on probation or parole or in prison, compared with 18 percent who are in college; Blacks are 14 times more likely than whites to go to jail for drug offenses even though white drug users outnumber Black users by more than three to one; more than a million adolescent girls become pregnant each year, and 80 percent of them drop out of school; and 25 percent of children live in poverty.

Elders said that America has suffered from a crisis of vision and lack of creativity to solve societal problems. Too many young people---our most valuable resource---dream about having material wealth but scoff at hard work to get there, she said.

"Too many of our bright young people have shoes that light up when they walk and brains that go dead when they talk," she said. "We have to have the courage to stand up and make a difference. Being aware of the problem is not good enough. We have to be advocates for the problem and we have to develop an action plan that's right for our communities, our schools, our cities. We don't have to wait to get a backbone transplant before we get started.

"I remember Martin Luther King saying something that meant a lot to me. He said, `The day we see the truth and refuse to speak is the day we begin to die,' and I want you to know, Joycelyn Elders plans to live a long time."