Anybody else would have headed for the door. The most contentious presidential election in modern times had just turned the White House over to a new group of social conservatives, and the Surgeon General’s position has always been a hotspot in America’s culture wars.
For Dr. David Satcher, who had been appointed by President Bill Clinton, the onset of the Bush administration would have been the right time to bow out. Instead, Dr. Satcher shepherded the publication of his intensely controversial “Call to Action” on sexual and reproductive health, in which he pleaded with America’s policy makers to begin “a mature, thoughtful, and respectful discussion nationwide about sexuality.”
“We have created an environment where there’s almost a conspiracy of silence when it comes to sexuality,” Satcher said in releasing his 2001 report. “It’s talked about in the wrong places in the wrong ways.”
The report lit a fire inside the national debate about sexual health, drawing heated criticism from proponents of abstinence-only sexual education and pushing the White House into a conversation it would have gladly ignored for four years. The document continues to stand as a rare measured voice in Washington’s wrenching debates over sexual health policy.
At first glance, such a controversial role seems an odd fit for the mild-mannered physician. But Dr. Satcher has come a long way from rural Alabama, where he grew up one of 10 children raised by his mother, a homemaker, and his father, a foundry worker—neither of whom had completed grade school.
Walking the streets of Watts early in his career as a doctor, Dr. Satcher asked one man what he needed most in medical care. “Well, Dr. Satcher,” the man replied, “we needs everything.” Dr. Satcher has devoted his life to meeting those needs. He has worked with the sick in the slums of Cleveland and with immigrant poor people in New York.
A graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta and the first Black student to earn both a medical and a doctoral degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, he began his medical career at the Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he developed the family medicine department and directed the sickle-cell program. Later he returned to Atlanta to become Chairman of the Community Medicine Department at the Morehouse School of Medicine.
Dr. Satcher became Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in November of 1993. When he stepped into the Surgeon General’s job in 1998, he filled a four-year vacancy created by President Clinton’s reluctant dismissal of Dr. Joycelyn Elders following her controversial comments about masturbation.
Among Dr. Satcher’s more prominent campaigns was his effort to reverse the racial disparities that plague American healthcare. Having been a leader in Black medical education since the ‘70s, including serving as president of historic Meharry Medical College from 1982 to 1993, Dr. Satcher was well versed in the challenges facing African Americans. He carried that knowledge into his position as director of the CDC and on into the Surgeon General’s office as well.
On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the AIDS epidemic, Dr. Satcher told CNN: “I think the real question is: How do we get clear prevention messages to populations that are most marginalized in this country, those people who are most likely to be pushed aside and uninvolved in our day-to-day deliberations and who don’t see themselves as being important or valued? Young gay men are difficult to identify in our population, because they don’t identify themselves.
“That is especially true of young gay men of color. Because of the stigma surrounding homosexuality, young gay men of color, as well as bisexual men of color, don’t always admit to themselves the nature of their sexual orientation, and they certainly do not admit it to other people, including their partners, in the case of bisexuality. So the real challenge is to find a way to motivate this population to change their behavior.”
From diabetes to smoking cessation to sexual health, particularly HIV/AIDS, Dr. Satcher is doing what he can to help change Black America’s health. As he told Ebony magazine as he entered the office back in 1998: “When you can speak and people act, together, we can mobilize communities.”