Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Obamacare Individual Mandate

On Wednesday, The Hill reported that the Obama administration had begun to implement the individual mandate at the heart of Obamacare. Noting its unpopularity, rules have been written by the IRS and Department of Health and Human Services that “downplay the scope” of the mandate and emphasize the exemptions. As a curious blogger, I wanted to see for myself the fact sheet that was disseminated.

So onto the website for HHS I went. When I got to www.hhs.gov, I clicked on the News tab. I was disappointed to see that the fact sheet was not listed. The most recent entry was from January 18 – a statement from Kathleen Sibelius on the observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (a statement I know we were all waiting for with great anticipation), which begins: “We at the Department of Health and Human Services honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for justice, and recall how 47 years ago he framed health care as a basic human right.”

Even more curious now, because I don’t recall universal governmental health care being a core tenet of Dr. King’s vision of justice and equal opportunity, I did a little searching. What I found was an incalculable number of vague references to social justice, and a few dozen references to a quote attributed to Dr. King: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane”. Strangely, however, there is no text of a speech or context in which the comment was given. There are a lot of articles marveling at how the quote has gone viral through social media, but precious little in the way of actual citation.

Given that his observation about access to health care is hardly an exhortation for the federal government to take over a giant chunk of our free market system, I began to sincerely wonder if he indeed said these words, and if so, how he meant them.

Then I stumbled across an article from a similarly curious blogger on the Left, Amanda Moore at HuffPo:

Tracking Down Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Words on Health Care

Although the quotation was oft-repeated — usually in connection with the debate over the Affordable Care Act or President Clinton’s attempts at health care reform in the early 1990s — it frequently appeared without further attribution. In the few times it was credited, it was listed as a statement Dr. King made in Chicago on March 25, 1966, to the second convention of the Medical Committee for Human Rights. I tried several online search tools to find a copy of Dr. King’s speech to this convention and even sought help from my husband, an academic librarian, who searched newspapers from around the time of the speech, hoping to find a quote from Dr. King’s remarks.
In spite of our best efforts, I could not locate the actual text of this speech anywhere.
The genesis of Dr. King’s statement on unequal health care began to appear uncomfortably similar to that of another famous MLK “quotation” from the year before: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” After this strikingly apropos quotation spread like wildfire across social media in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, word spread — albeit more slowly — that the quotation was apocryphal, the result of a Facebook post that morphed as it was shared, the Internet version of the game “telephone.” Could the same process have birthed another too-good-to-be-true quotation from Dr. King?

Moore goes on to state that she finally did track down a gentleman who was in the audience on that day in 1966 and can confirm that the words were, indeed, spoken by Dr. King: “… to my pleasant surprise, he confirmed that Dr. King had indeed made such a statement but noted that Dr. King actually called injustice in health care ‘inhuman,’ an adjective Young found stronger than the commonly (mis)quoted “inhumane.'” However, as the remarks were given spontaneously, there has never been a written record that Dr. King ever did advocate for any sort of government healthcare program. So one is left with the inescapable conclusion that those on the Left who cite Dr. King in their defense of universal healthcare really do a disservice to the legacy of the man.

Oh, and I did eventually find that fact sheet on the individual mandate I was looking for. It was on the IRS website. Because it’s not a mandate, it’s a tax.

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