Civil Rights leader and AOA Past President William Anderson, DO, who led the organization from 1994 to 1995, was born and raised in Sumter County, Georgia, which is also the birthplace and childhood home of President Jimmy Carter, who is close in age to Dr. Anderson.
Despite growing up 10 miles apart around the same time, neither Dr. Anderson and President Carter, nor their families or acquaintances, ever crossed paths—because at that time the area was “totally racially segregated,” Dr. Anderson noted during an AOA staff forum late last month.
During the forum, Dr. Anderson shared details about becoming a physician with few Black professional role models, talked about the notable individuals who changed the course of his life and answered staff questions.
For more of Dr. Anderson’s story, including what inspired him to join the Civil Rights Movement and his work with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., PhD, read The DO’s summary of his earlier staff forum from Feb. 10.
Introduction to osteopathic medicine
When Dr. Anderson was growing up in Americus, Georgia, in Sumter County, the only higher education nearby available to Black students was a junior college that only offered training in agriculture and homemaking. The environment offered “no opportunity for advancement, educationally, occupationally or economically,” he noted.
However, Dr. Anderson knew early on that he wanted to be a physician. Despite the limited opportunities, his parents always supported and encouraged him.
“My parents were an inspiration to me,” he says.
And Dr. Anderson’s father introduced him to osteopathic medicine. His close friend, who practiced in Albany, Georgia, was, at the time, the only Black osteopathic physician in the South. He had attended Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine (DMU-COM).
A path with no road map
Eventually, Dr. Anderson would attend DMU-COM as well. Throughout his medical training, he occupied a space that few, if any, Black trainees had previously been in. He forged a path for which there was no road map and persevered despite encountering racism and discrimination.
“I never took my eyes off the prize,” Dr. Anderson says.
After finishing his postgraduate training in Michigan, Dr. Anderson wanted to practice medicine in Detroit. But his late wife, Norma, whom he credits with giving him the guidance and encouragement he needed to finish his education, urged him to return to Georgia.
“She reminded me, ‘You are needed where you came from,'” Dr. Anderson said. “She convinced me. My wife was a very smart woman.”
So the family moved to Albany, Georgia, where Dr. Anderson had a thriving family medicine practice despite being denied hospital privileges.
“No black physician had ever had privileges in that hospital, in that county or even in that part of Georgia,” he said.
The Albany Movement
In Albany, Dr. Anderson became motivated to protest for civil rights after seeing students march in support of voting rights for African Americans. He quickly became the organizer and leader of the Albany Movement, the first mass effort to protest community segregation in the Civil Rights era. More details about his civil rights work are included in the summary of his first talk.
One large march that Dr. Anderson organized resulted in several hundred individuals, including Dr. Anderson, being jailed. To try to help them all get out, Dr. Anderson enlisted the help of civil rights lawyers. At the time, there were just three Black lawyers in the entire country who were taking civil rights cases. Their names were C.B. King, Don Hollowell and Fred Gray.
Through his connections to Dr. King and the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Dr. Anderson had befriended these lawyers earlier when he had been living in Atlanta.
“Make friends when you can, wherever you can,” Dr. Anderson said. “Who knows which of those are going to become your friends in a time of need.”
The three lawyers were able to help Dr. Anderson and his fellow marchers get out of jail. After the march, the situation for African Americans began to slowly improve in Albany, Dr. Anderson noted, particularly in the areas of education and politics. However, throughout the entire U.S., the fight for racial equality continues today, Dr. Anderson said.
After his talk, Dr. Anderson took questions from AOA staff. Following is an edited Q&A.
Is your story documented in a book?
“I wrote Autobiography of a Black Couple of the Greatest Generation with my wife. Another book, Blacks in Osteopathic Medicine, was written by my daughter, and it notes that I was not the first. There were others. But I was the first, second or third surgeon.” [You can receive a copy of Dr. Anderson’s autobiography by making a $32 donation to the American Osteopathic Foundation’s minority scholarship fund. More information is available here.]
What can the profession do to support underrepresented minority youth today?
“The youth have to see one to believe that they can be one. I came out of a small town, where everybody was either a farmer, a cotton picker or a maid. They couldn’t believe I was talking about being a doctor. But I got to see a Black doctor named Dr. Dasher. He practiced in Akron, Ohio, but he would come down to Americus and stay for a month or two. I think he received a grant.
“We have to encourage today’s youth more. One of the ways we can do that is by telling them that scholarship money is available. We have to make sure that African American students and other minority students who aspire to be physicians are not frightened away by the high costs of medical education.
“I helped start a minority scholarship fund with the American Osteopathic Foundation for this reason.”
After participating in the Civil Rights Movement, what do you think people can do today to improve equity and inclusion?
“Voting is a great way to change things. The policies that we all live by in this country are set by members of Congress. And they are elected by those who vote.”