Martin Luther King Jr., Health Equity, and the Five Life Standards

This past week, we honored the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who championed and gave his life in the struggle for the Civil Rights Movement and for the Dream of Equality of All.  We have come a long way in many respects yet there is still work to be done.  We at Mennonite Healthcare Fellowship stand in solidarity to the call for equality in all spheres of life, including health and healthcare.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) emphasizes that all Americans should have equal opportunities to pursue a healthy lifestyle, known as health equity. “Health equity is achieved when every person has the opportunity to ‘attain his or her full health potential’ and no one is ‘disadvantaged from achieving this potential because of social position or other socially determined circumstances.’” As we remember the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this day is a good reminder of the rights he fought for and the challenges he gave us all to bring about equality, including health equality.

The racial health disparities that existed when MLK Jr confronted them was not a new problem nor has the problem ceased to exist. In March 1966, Dr. King spoke at a Convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights held in Chicago in March 1966, stating: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane”,  Dr. King and officers of the Medical Committee for Human Rights called for court suits to force doctors and hospitals to comply with the Civil Rights Act.  Dr King also accused the American Medical Association of a “conspiracy of inaction” in civil rights. Dr. King charged that the American Medical Association has not taken needed steps to end racial discrimination in the treatment received by Black individuals and within the AMA itself.

Today the disparities may not be as apparent as they were during Dr. King’s time.  There are no officially segregated hospitals, physician’s offices, clinics and doctors and other other medical care providers come from all spectrum of people. But disparities still exist. According to the CDC, “The health inequities of today are reflected in differences in length of life; quality of life; rates of disease, disability, and death; severity of disease; and access to treatment.”. Just looking at the figures there are some start disparities in health outcomes between African Americans and white Americans.

  • African Americans ages 18-49 are two times as likely to die from heart disease than whites.
  • African Americans ages 35-64 years are 50 percent more likely to have high blood pressure than whites.
  • African Americans are more likely to die at early ages from all causes than white Americans..

In the Institute of Medicine report “Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century published in 2001 it is stated that a healthcare system should provide “care that does not vary in quality because of personal characteristics such as gender, ethnicity, geographic location, and socioeconomic status”.  This may be a high calling and still a dream to be achieved.  Take a look around and the statistics will tell you that there is still much work to be done to have a just healthcare system. Whether or not health equity is a reality or close to being one is a dream we can all share as Dr. King shared his dream.   

In the words of Dr. King, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”  As active or retired members of the healthcare field, you have done much for others yet the question still remains to be answered every day in all our actions.

The Five Life Standards and Health Equity

The first of the Five Life Standards from More with Less (Herald Press, 1976) by Doris Janzen Longacre is “Do Justice.” Here at MHF and throughout our Five Life Standards project, we are exploring a health-care focused standard of: Do justice for the health and wellbeing of all. This standard calls us as Anabaptist health providers to attend to the health disparities too prevalent in our society today, and think about how each of us in our practice, advocacy, and lifestyles can be a part of the solution towards a more equitable health system and “the health and wellbeing of all.” 

Join MHF in our Five Life Standards project to explore health equity and health justice. Watch for Community Conversations, opportunities to join the Nuture Council for the Five Life Standards Project, and registration for 2022 Annual Gathering at Laurelville. 


 Health Equity | CDC, Center for Disease and Control website, Jan 17, 2022

Luther King M., Jr Presentation at the Second National Convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights, Chicago, 25 March 1966

King Berates Medical Care Given Negroes, Oshkosh Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh, Wis.), March 26, 1966 Dr. Martin Luther King on health care injustice – PNHP

Jordan, Julie  Honor MLK’s dream for Black health equity | Georgia Department of Public Health, January 18, 2019

Institute of Medicine Crossing the quality chasm: a new health system for the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2001



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