A Requiem For Rev. Ronnie Williams: Public Health, Poverty and the Good Fight

Reading “Poverty and Public Health,” a great article by colleague Mark Kelly in his Weld for Birmingham newspaper, was bittersweet for me.

It made me think of my friend Rev. Ronnie Williams. He should have been in it.

At the time Mark was interviewing and writing his story, Ronnie was battling the cancer that had spread from his lungs to his brain and other parts of his body. The cancer grew as the result of a severely addictive cigarette habit that gripped this public health advocate’s life for 45 years. Ronnie was 56 when he lost his battle and died on Sept. 23, the same day Mark’s article came out.

From the time that I met him two years ago, Ronnie began explaining to me the intricate connection between poverty and public health. Now, public health itself is a deep, multi-disciplinary field of preventative medicine. It requires a mind that can connect health with a broad spectrum of social factors, environmental conditions, political decisions and public policies — the “determinants of health.” It’s a lot to take in.

For years, Ronnie, a military veteran with a work background in IT, had immersed himself in this field, particularly as the former executive director for Congregations for Public Health. The community-based nonprofit came together under a grant to the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Public Health. He was also instrumental in bringing the Joint Center for Political and Economic StudiesPlace Matters initiative to Jefferson County.

In these capacities, he came to understand that the real root causes of health disparities among the poor, especially African Americans, was the nature of poverty itself.

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Cooper Green Mercy Madness and The Healthcare Divide

I saw trouble coming when Maralyn Mosley called the GOP JeffCo commissioners who favored closing Cooper Green Mercy Hospital “cowards” and refused to be silent. When asked to leave the chambers and sheriff’s deputies surrounded her, she shouted, “If you want me out, you’ll have to carry me out! I’m not gonna leave these cowards in here!”

But I knew the war was on when Rev. Tommy Lewis, who earlier tried to calm Ms. Mosley and supporters who started singing “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round,” came out of the commission’s back chamber, where he and other civic leaders apparently tried to reason with the GOP commissioners. He waved his hand in the air, exclaiming that the commissioners wouldn’t act in good faith to reconsider their vote to end Cooper Green’s in-patient services.

Then Lewis – all 6-foot-8 of him – turned toward Commissioner Joe Knight, and looking down, wagged his finger in Knight’s face, and practically shouted , “Either you take this back to committee (for further discussion), or we’re all going to jail!” It’s only the beginning, he said later.

Thus the commission debate over Cooper Green Mercy Hospital – which provides medical services to the county’s poor, uninsured and underinsured residents – turned into a full-blown civil rights protest.

How did it come to this?

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