As remembered by Jack Geiger
November 28, 2014
Another giant of the movement, and its medical arm, is gone. Bob Smith called from Jackson with the news that Aaron Shirley had died on Tuesday. Drs. Smith and Shirley were twin pillars of the struggles for social justice and equity in medical care in Mississippi from the 1960s to this day.
Aaron started in Vicksburg. A family practice graduate of Meharry, he fought exclusion of black physicians from hospitals there, launched a local civil rights newspaper with his wife, Ollye — it had to be printed in New Orleans, because no printer in Vicksburg would touch itand, when the predictable death threats from the KKK and the White Citizens Council came flooding in, quietly taught his young sons how to shoot.
He moved to Jackson in the mid-60s. When the Delta Health Center began clinical services in 1967 (after several years of struggle with Mississippi and, sometimes, with OEO), understaffed and overwhelmed with patients, Aaron Shirley left his practice and drove the 140 miles to Mound Bayou (and then back again) two days a week to help out. Bob Smith learned to fly, borrowed a plane, flew to the Delta and back, doing the same. For each of them, 20-hour days, unasked. Back in Jackson, Aaron launched the Jackson-Hinds CHC, now surely the largest in the state, with 16 satellites, its core strength then in community involvement and attention to such social determinants as food and affordable housing for the African American elderly. The Mississippi Governor vetoed the OEO grant. In one lunchtime meeting, Aaron convinced Nixon's OEO director, would you believe some guy named Donald Rumsfeld, to override the veto.
Aaron never stopped innovating, pushing forward. In mid-career, he became the first black resident at Old Miss Medical Center (in pediatrics). Steve Joseph mentioned that Aaron could be tough. You bet. One night in his first year, he found a black soldier with a head injury, relegated to a back room by white ER house staff who had decided the soldier was just another drunk. Aaron protested; they brushed him off. So Aaron quietly found a pay phone and called the Pentagon. An hour later, the commanding general of the nearby Army base arrived, with the Old Miss vice chancellor in tow, raising hell.
Later, Aaron took over an abandoned, derelict shopping mall in Jackson and helped turn it into a Medical Mall, an arm to the University Medical Center and home to the Jackson Heart Study; he directed it as a flourishing resource for the city's black community. He was awarded a MacArthur "genius" fellowship, and used the money to advance those aims.
In recent years, in cooperation with a medical university in Iran, and with support from the U.S. State Department and colleagues at the University's home campus in Oxford, MS, he fought to establish an integrated model of free-standing, community-based "health homes," staffed by specially trained community health workers and integrated with CHCs and community hospitals. He and his wife were working on plans to create a sharecroppers' museum, a testimony to the long labor of tens of thousands of African American families who made other people rich in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South.
In all this, Aaron Shirley was a man of quiet, unflinching, unassuming determination. He never stopped at the end of what some people quaintly call the "civil rights era"..: That movement has produced more than its share of giants in Mississippi — Medgar Evers, Aaron Henry, Amzie Moore, LC Dorsey, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses, Drs. Bob Smith and Helen Barnes and Harvey Sanders and others. Aaron Shirley ranks high among them. To me, most of all, he was a lifelong friend.
We grow older, and mourn our losses.