"You've got to get people's attention before you can achieve change. As Surgeon General, you have to take a stand. People are either going to love you or hate you." - Dr. Joycelyn Elders
Dr. Joycelyn Elders AKA Minnie Lee Jones was born in Schaal, Arkansas to a farming family. She was the daughter of sharecroppers. Her great grandparents were slaves. Her mother taught her how to read when she was five. That was also when, as the oldest of eight children, she began working in the cotton fields while attending a segregated school.
She graduated high school, went to college, joined the army, and was discharged in 1956, and enrolled in University of Arkansas Medical School. Even though Brown v. Board of Education had already passed, the dining room at the medical school was still segregated. In 1961 she became chief resident at her residency at University of Arkansas, in charge of the all white and all male residents and interns.
Once, I had a professor say to me, "You know you have as much education as a lot of white people." I answered, "Doctor, I have more education than most white people." -Dr. Joycelyn Elders
In 1978, Elders became the first person in the entire state of Arkansas to be board certified in pediatric endocrinology. She continued to research the health risks and sexual behavior of adolescents. Bill Clinton appointed her to the head of the Arkansas Department of Health in 1987 during his tenure as governor. From 1987 to 1992, Elders nearly doubled childhood immunizations in Arkansas, expanded the state's prenatal care program, and increased home-care options for the chronically or terminally ill.
In 1993, President Clinton appointed Dr. Elders U.S. Surgeon General. She was the first woman of color ever appointed to this position. To add insult to injury, some of her colleagues in the American Medical Association passed a resolution stating that all surgeon generals must be a physician.
You know, some people in the American Medical Association, a certain group of them, didn't even know that I was a physician. And they were passing a resolution to say that from now on every Surgeon General must be a physician -- which was a knock at me. Well, you know, not only am I a physician, I'm a pediatrician. Not only am I a pediatrician, I'm a pediatric endocrinologist. Not only am I a pediatric endocrinologist, but I was a professor at a major university medical school! They don't expect a black female to have accomplished what I have accomplished and to have done the things that I have. - Dr. Joycelyn Elders
During her time as surgeon general, Dr. Elders advocated for universal health care and comprehensive sex education for adolescents. Unfortunately, her time in this office was short lived, due to some of the following controversial statements she made.
"I think there should be laws against stalking physicians who perform abortions. We don't allow people to stalk people for anything else. Why permit them to stalk doctors just because they are doing abortions? We really need to get over this love affair with the fetus and start worrying about children."
"I think all of America let the [AIDS] epidemic get out of hand. The infrastructure of public health had been so eroded that we didn't have the machinery in place to stop that epidemic. We didn't have a comprehensive health education program. . . . There were some people in those administrations who did not support health education and AIDS control, who had problems with sexuality. They were doing what they felt the majority of people who had voted for them wanted them to do. And the rest of us were silent."
"If I could be the 'condom queen' and get every young person who is engaged in sex to use a condom in the United States, I would wear a crown on my head with a condom on it! I would!"
"We would markedly reduce our crime rate if drugs were legalized; we need to do some studies."
In 1994, at a United Nations conference on AIDS, Dr. Elders was asked whether it would be appropriate to promote masturbation as a means of preventing young people from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity so they would be less likely to contract HIV. Elders replied "I think that it is part of human sexuality, and perhaps it should be taught." This was the last straw. Under pressure from Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton fired her.
Elders has absolutely no regrets about her time as surgeon general. "Our country talked about masturbation more in December of 1994 than they ever have in the history of the country, and you know, people would think you'd be embarrassed about that," Elders told CNN in 1996. "I'm not embarrassed about that."
After her forced resignation, Elders continued to teach and speak her mind.
In 1995, on her tenure and her identity: "I think being a black female enhanced my ability to bring up and discuss difficult issues. First of all, had a white man or woman talked about some of the issues I brought up--the links between poverty, education and pregnancy, for instance--they would have been attacked by the minority community. Because of my gender and race, and the fact that I grew up in a poor family, people knew that I understood many of these problems and I was not out there just talking about something I'd heard about or read about. They knew that I knew. Of the many things you've heard people say about me, you've never heard anyone say I lied about the issues. Black people, poor people and women--they all knew that I knew what I was talking about."
In 1995 on abstinence-only education: "Heaven knows every mother, every preacher, every teacher would love for young people to practice abstinence--but there is all kinds of evidence to the contrary. We have more than a million teen-agers getting pregnant every year--unplanned pregnancies. We have a rapidly spreading HIV-disease epidemic, other sexually transmitted diseases.
"So, rather than just standing out there and hollering "Abstinence! Abstinence! Abstinence!" we have to teach our children to be responsible. Other countries do it. They aren't out there trying to legislate morals. They're out there trying to prevent their young people from having unplanned, unwanted pregnancies and from getting sexually transmitted disease. The sexual activities of teen-agers in the Netherlands, Japan and many other countries are no different than those of our teens--yet, American teens are eight to nine times more likely to have an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease."
In 1995 on violence in communities: "We need to teach our young people nonviolent ways to resolve conflicts. We know that it works. But the response is always, "We don't have enough money." But we have plenty of money to put people in jail. It just makes no sense."
In 1997 on masturbation: "Parents need to let go of the idea that ignorance maintains innocence and begin teaching age-appropriate facts to children. Informed children know what sexual abuse and harassment are, what normal physical closeness with others is, what should be reported, and to whom. Rather than tell children that touching themselves is forbidden, parents may gently explain that this is best done in private."
In 2010, on legalizing marijuana: "I think we consume far more dangerous drugs that are legal: cigarette smoking, nicotine and alcohol. I feel they cause much more devastating effects physically. We need to lift the prohibition on marijuana."
In 2011, in response to attacks on Planned Parenthood: Any woman who has a congressperson who votes against women's reproductive rights is headed back to the Dark Ages, when they were owned by their husbands. The fact that we have these votes [in Congress] alone is a threat. We're still fighting. We've always had to fight. It wasn't until 1965 that we had the right to even use contraceptives, and even then you had to be married and get permission from your husband.
You bright young people -- and I love you -- but you don't know what it was like for us old folk, when you couldn't have birth control pills, when condoms were not as readily available and we didn't have all the other contraceptives that are now on the market. I think if the women of this country -- whether black, white, young, old, Democrat or Republican -- cause the reproductive rights of any of our citizens to be lost, then we should never forgive ourselves.
In 2011, when asked if she had ever considered "toning down" her position: No. That never occurred to me in any way, shape or form. I felt that I was a surgeon general for the people of this country, and especially adolescents. I was doing what I thought had to be done at that time to improve education and access to services for adolescent youngsters, and I think we did some of that.
She gives me goosebumps. She is incredibly brave. She isn't afraid to speak the truth. And I think more people should know who she is.