In the 1960s, many students organized and marched for civil rights. Gloria Johnson-Powell was among them, and even thought about leaving medical school to recruit more “freedom riders.”
It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself who changed her mind. At a meeting of student organizers, she recalls, “He banged his hand on the table, pointed his finger at me, and said, “You will stay in school because one of these days we’re going to need you.”
So Johnson-Powell pursued her dream, becoming a pediatrician and a child psychologist who was one of the first African-American women professors tenured at Harvard. While serving individuals in each of those roles, she has kept her eyes on the prize of racial equality as well.
While on sabbatical from Harvard, she became a dean at the University of Wisconsin, where she was responsible for recruiting people of color. She met that goal by starting a center to study cultural diversity in health care. And that led to landmark national legislation creating a new center within the National Institutes of Health focused on studying minority health and eliminating health disparities between races. It was lauded as the first civil-rights legislation for the twenty-first century.
As head of the new center, Johnson-Powell and colleagues focused on improving the health of mothers and children in Milwaukee, the area nearest the university with the largest minority population. Implementing a nurse home-visit program helped get the program off to a good start, but Johnson-Powell knows the right for equal rights is an ongoing struggle. Dr. King was right; the country did (and does) need her.