It Was the Week Before Christmas, 47 Years Ago
Updated: Sep 3
By: Donald V. Watkins
Copyrighted and Published on December 22, 2021
It was the week before Christmas, 47 years ago. Mr. Charlie W. Pollard and another survivor led me to a small shack in rural Macon County, Alabama. The man inside the shack could not come to the door, but he called out for us to enter his tiny home after Mr. Pollard knocked loudly on the door and announced our presence.
The man had no Christmas decorations in or around the shack. A kerosene lamp provided lighting inside his home.
The man was laying on a cot in the one-room, cold shack that had a dirt floor and cardboard tacked up where glass windows should have been. The stench from his shack was unbearable.
This man was dying from the effects of 40 years of untreated syphilis and related health problems. He was old, nearly blind, laboring hard to breathe, debilitated by tumors, and suffering from liver and stomach problems. He was immobile due to searing bone and joint pain, as well as damage to his central nervous system. This man was hurting, badly. Yet, he had a profound sense of pride and dignity about himself.
The man Pollard took me to see was a fellow participant in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. And, he was dying.
A Racist, Unethical Government-Sponsored and Operated Medical Experiment on Unsuspecting Black Men
In 1974, I was a young civil rights attorney with the law firm of Gray, Seay, and Langford. Senior partner Fred D. Gray, who represented Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ms. Rosa Parks, and other civil rights icons during the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement, was the lead counsel in a class action lawsuit filed in 1973 on behalf of 623 black men who were duped by the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) and Alabama Department of Public Health officials into participating in nontherapeutic human experimentation on syphilitic patients, without their valid, competent, voluntary, and informed consent to such experimentation.
The official name of this human experimentation project was the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male." For 40 years, the United States government sponsored, financed, and operated medical research that callously experimented with and risked the very lives and health of these 623 black citizens.
All of the participants in the Study were poor, rural, and mostly illiterate residents of Macon County, Alabama. All of them had been told that they had "bad blood," a local term for several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, bone and joint pain, and fatigue.
The USPHS and state health officials promised the men treatment for their ailments, physical examinations, hot meals, transportation to and from the hospital (at Tuskegee Institute, which was misled into believing the Study participants were being properly treated), and burial insurance. Researchers also lied to the participants in order to get their permission for painful spinal taps during the physical exams and autopsies after their deaths.
Mr. Pollard was the lead plaintiff in the case. He and the other 622 Study participants were the unwitting human subjects in this unethical medical experiment that lasted from 1932 to 1972. The sole purpose of the Study was to examine, in detail, the effects of untreated syphilis in human subjects until the last man was dead.
The USPHS never gave any consideration to conducting this experimentation on white men, nor did it consider including white men in the Study.
Over the 40-year period, 445 men with confirmed cases of syphilis and 178 men in the control group participated in the Study. All of the participants were given placebos such as aspirin and mineral supplements.
The syphilitic participants were never given penicillin, even after it became the recommended treatment protocol for syphilis in 1943. USPHS researchers and state health officials convinced local doctors in Macon County to forego treating the Study participants for their ailments.
A Slow, Painful Death
The syphilitic man in the shack was nearing the end of his life when we met. For 40 years, this man had been on a long, slow, descent into a living hell, all in the name of some USPHS medical experiment of dubious value. Yet, this man still had hope that he would be cured.
I gave this man an update on the lawsuit that Attorney Gray had filed on their behalf. I explained to him that a settlement that had been reached between the plaintiffs and the United States government. He listened to me talk, asked questions about the case, and he agreed to the settlement.
As time passed, it became clear to me that this man was more focused on his health and on getting better than he was on the settlement. The man knew he was in bad shape, but he wanted to live.
I did not address the man's hope of getting better because I knew he was dying a slow, painful death. I also knew his condition was irreversible at this stage in his life.
Instead, I grabbed a Bible that was near his cot and asked the man if I could read a Biblical passage to him. He said, "Yes." I read him the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-12. Then, I lead the four of us in the shack in a prayer. I asked God to transform this man -- a metaphorical "caterpillar" on earth -- into a beautiful "butterfly' with eternal life whenever he was received in Heaven. Until that time, I begged God to give this dying man a measure of freedom from pain and peace on earth.
On our ride back to Attorney Gray's Tuskegee office, I did not say a word to Mr. Pollard or the other survivor riding with us. I was filled with bitterness and rage at the inhumanity of the federal and state officials towards the 623 black men in the Study and their families.
These 623 Black Lives Did Not Matter, Until 1972
Under the 1974 settlement in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study case, 70 living syphilitic participants received $37,500 each. The 46 living men in the control group got $16,000 each. The 339 deceased syphilitic participants received $15,000 each. The deceased members of the control group got $5,000 each.
Attorney Gray was not able to locate 36 syphilitic participants and 8 members of the control group, but we continued looking for them for several years.
The total value of the settlement for the 579 Study victims Mr. Gray represented was $9,066,000, which was a record for the monetary value of black lives in Alabama in 1974. Attorney Gray had also negotiated free healthcare for life for the participants who were still living, as well as healthcare for their infected wives, widows, and children.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study did not end because USPHS and Alabama health officials suddenly valued black lives in 1972. The Study ended only because Washington Star reporter Jean Heller wrote an article about the Study that the Associated Press (AP) published worldwide on July 25, 1972. The New York Times published a front page article about the Study the next day.
This press exposure rightly and grievously embarrassed the U.S. government. Alabama public officials remained unconcerned. After all, the Macon County men were just poor, rural, illiterate "niggers," and no white men were involved.
By the time the AP and New York Times articles were published, 28 Study participants had died from syphilis, 100 more had died from related health complications, and 40 spouses had been diagnosed with syphilis. Additionally, congenial syphilis had been passed on at birth to 19 of the men's children.
On May 16, 1997, President Bill Clinton issued a formal Presidential Apology for the Study. Only 6 Study participants were alive when Clinton apologized to these men.
The last Tuskegee Syphilis Study participant died in 2004.
No USPHS Doctor Involved With the Study Was Prosecuted for Crimes Against Humanity
In 1947, the U.S. Military Tribunal at Nuremberg adopted the Nuremberg Code in 1947 and used it to charge, try, convict, and execute Germany scientists for their human experimentation on Jews, Gypsies, Gays, and Black Germans during World War II. The Tribunal characterized the German scientists' nontherapeutic human experimentation as "crimes against humanity."
In America, the white medical community knew about the Study for decades and condoned it. Researchers even published articles about the Study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
White doctors working with the federal and state health officials, together with those doctors in private practice in Macon County, acted in concert with each other to make sure that the participants did not receive any medical treatment for syphilis and/or its related medical complications throughout the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. Yet, not a single doctor who participated in this unethical and illegal human experimentation was prosecuted for "crimes against humanity."
Furthermore, no flag-waving "law and order" politician in America has ever demanded that the perpetrators of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study be charged and tried for "crimes against humanity" for the murdered of the 445 syphilitic victims.
Likewise, in the past four decades, no "right to life" advocacy group has ever voiced a word of support for the children of the syphilitic participants who were born with congenital syphilis.
To this day, my visit to the man in the shack in Macon County 47 years ago this week was the worst experience in my 73-year-old life. That moment in time was the closest I have ever come to hating those whites who view and treat blacks as something less than human beings.
The only thing that pulled me back from the brink of this hatred was my memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holding my little hand in our Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Sunday School class while he quoted this verse from Matthew 5:44: "[L]ove your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you."
Dr. King, who was my Sunday School teacher in the early 1950s, followed this verse by leadings us in singing, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so....".
For the next 47 years, I used the hurt, bitterness, and anger I experienced at that Macon County shack 47 years ago to fuel my passionate fight against all forms of white racism in Alabama, a state that had what one federal judge described in 1986 as "an unrelenting historical agenda, spanning from the late 1880s to the 1980s, to keep its black citizens economically, socially, and politically downtrodden, from the cradle to the grave."
For 48 years, my job as a civil rights attorney has been to lift the yoke of oppression from the necks of downtrodden men, women, and children. I have pursued this mission with a vengeance and won numerous high-impact, landmark legal civil rights cases in Alabama. For nearly five decades, these cases have made me a very unpopular public figure in Alabama's ultra-conservative white community. More recently, these cases have made me an unwelcomed social justice activist among the state's sad but growing "Uncle Tom" community.
As I watch today's conservative political leaders and 28 Republican-controlled state legislatures boldly usher in a modern-day version of the "white hegemony" that birthed the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, I know that my job as a civil rights advocate is far from over. In fact, I am going into the 2022 New Year waging a battle to desegregate Alabama's all-white, 19-judge, appellate court system in a state with 26.39% black registered voters.
Fortunately for Americans of interracial goodwill, I still have a raging fire in me for equal opportunity and the fair administration of justice that cannot be put out.