Black History Month

Civil rights trailblazer William G. Anderson, DO, on his journey to medicine, leading Albany Movement

“Sometimes you have to test the waters, and you’ll find the waters are not as cold as perhaps you thought they would be,” Dr. Anderson said.

William G. Anderson, DO is a pioneer in every respect.

He was the first Black surgical resident in Detroit, the first Black president of the AOA, and a co-leader of the Albany Movement, the first mass movement in the civil rights era when protestors marched to end community segregation.

In a lifetime of breaking barriers as an educator and civil rights leader, Dr. Anderson has worked closely with the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., PhD, and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy.

As an osteopathic physician, his efforts to advocate for diversity in the profession have put him at the top of Becker’s Hospital Review’s list of 31 Black medical pioneers.

On Feb. 10, he spoke to AOA staff in a virtual forum about how he overcame discrimination to become a physician and helped lead the Albany Movement. Below are highlights from Dr. Anderson’s remarks.

Guiding principles

Dr. Anderson said there were three key objectives he kept in mind during his journey to become a physician:

  1. Survival — He said he was keenly aware that many who came to America on slave ships with his ancestors did not survive the journey. That knowledge inspired him to push on in the face of adversity in his career.
  2. Creating an identity — Dr. Anderson said he felt it was important that know where his family came from and forge a path for himself. He is two generations removed from slavery, and had few living ancestors to identify with growing up. Though his great-grandparents gave his family the name Anderson, it wasn’t something he could trace very far back genealogically.
  3. Transforming America — He wanted to help transform a nation that was “built on racism, hatred and discrimination” into a free and open society. “We are still trying to find that place where we can all say we are free at last and have all of the other freedoms that other Americans enjoy every day,” he said.

Overcoming obstacles

After serving in the Navy during World War II, he went back to America to pursue a career as a physician. In the late 1940s, there were only a handful of DOs of color in the U.S., and Dr. Anderson faced a steep climb just to get into a medical school. He was denied the opportunity by many allopathic schools because he had received education from colleges that were not accredited.

Fortunately, he had the help of William Reese, DO, in Albany, Georgia, who was the only African American DO in the entire southern U.S. at that time. Dr. Reese was also Dr. Anderson’s physician, and his father’s best friend.

Dr. Reese encouraged Dr. Anderson to apply to Des Moines University College of Medicine (DMU-COM). He went to Des Moines, Iowa, took the admissions tests, and was accepted.

“As I look back on my days and look at where we are today, I can say extraordinary opportunities have opened up for so many, and part of that was given to me through the osteopathic profession,” he said.

“Sometimes you have to test the waters”

Dr. Anderson continued to face discrimination through medical school. At a school dance event, he raised many eyebrows in the room by dancing with a white biochemistry professor. In spite of warnings from other faculty members who said that wasn’t acceptable, he reported that nothing happened, and that his act was the beginning of the end of segregation at official college functions.

Later on, when he needed an internship, a professor had to advocate for him because he was Black. That professor, however, defended Dr. Anderson by saying he “wasn’t like other Black students.”

Once he was accepted to that internship, he realized he was not being assigned any white patients. So he took a chance and asked to start seeing them, specifically, and afterward saw white patients without issue. His actions effected change in the hospital system.

“This all put a strain on me, but it tested a system that had been in place since the end of slavery,” he said. “Sometimes you have to test the waters, and you’ll find the waters are not as cold as perhaps you thought they would be.”

Civil rights leader

Before matriculating at DMU-COM, Dr. Anderson attended Alabama State College in Montgomery, Alabama, where he crossed paths with Abernathy. Around the same time, he met Dr. King, who was the best friend of his wife’s brother.

Once he had completed his medical training, Dr. Anderson returned to Georgia to practice because he felt he was needed there. From his office one day, he saw students marching and carrying signs that advocated for Black voting rights. He went home that day and told his wife he wanted to march, too. They demonstrated the next day, and after Dr. Anderson left to go see patients, his wife was arrested and sent to jail.

“That was the beginning of mass jailings in Albany, Georgia, because people were demonstrating for the right to vote,” he said. “It was the beginning of the Albany Civil Rights Movement.”

That movement included mass meetings every night at churches that Dr. Anderson helped lead. Hundreds of people attended. But mass arrests continued. Dr. Anderson needed help, so he followed up on his connections with Dr. King, Abernathy and other civil rights leaders to help organize the movement.

One night after Dr. King had preached to three churches full of people, he said he was tired. But more people were eager to hear from him, so Dr. Anderson encouraged him to press on.

“‘I said, you can’t leave now, these people have been waiting for generations for a leader like you,'” he said. “I saw a stride toward freedom being made that night. He pulled himself up and preached a fourth time.”

The group marched the next day and Dr. Anderson was sent to jail among hundreds of protestors. Several days later, the chief of police came to the jail cell Dr. Anderson was sharing with Abernathy and Dr. King, and said that he was releasing Dr. King so that he could appear on NBC’s Meet the Press.

Dr. King refused, saying he would not come out until white people talked about ending segregation. But Dr. King realized that someone needed to go on the show to get the movement’s message out. Dr. Anderson went on the show in his place after staying up all night preparing his talking points.

A transcript of the interview is available in Dr. Anderson’s book, Autobiographies of a Black Couple of the Greatest Generation. More information on how to purchase that book will be available soon.

Dr. Anderson shared more details about this story in another AOA staff forum on Friday. Stay tuned for more coverage.

Related reading:

5 questions with civil rights icon William G. Anderson, DO

It enabled me to live my dreams’: Recipients of the William G. Anderson, DO, scholarship share its impact

6 comments

  1. Bill is not only an osteopathic treasure or even an American medicine treasure; he is an unrecognized world hero. His story is beyond inspirational!!! A life well-lived and I remain honored he remains a friend….

    1. Dr. Anderson has done so much for so many. In 2018 the AOA – HOD created the
      “William G. Anderson, DO Initiative for the Availability of Epinephrine Products” in his honor. So far WI, MN, IN, and CO have created new epinephrine laws. If you would like to help follow through on this initiative please contact me. Thank you. Len Markman DO

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