American tragedy: Tuskegee study - FOX13 News, WHBQ FOX 13

American tragedy: Tuskegee study

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    Friday, October 4 2013 3:43 PM EDT2013-10-04 19:43:45 GMT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (FOX13) - -

In 1977 late singer Gil Scott Heron wrote what seemed an innocuous 33-second song titled "Tuskegee 626".

It was actually Heron's musical homage to the inhumanity which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of African American men over four decades.

It wasn't a hit record. But, it was the truth.

Even after decades in his profession, noted Alabama civil rights attorney, Fred Gray, maintains a passing curiosity about legal reference books inside a room at the University of Memphis Law School. In a career that has seen him stand side-by-side legally representing such notables as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, it is Gray's personal and professional involvement with the less stellar victims of another case which is being highlighted at a two day symposium hosted by the U of M's Health Law Institute; the horrific saga of hundreds of African American men who fatally participated in the now infamous 40-year Tuskegee Syphilis Study in Macon County Alabama beginning in 1932.

Fred Gray who represents Tuskegee Syphilis Study relatives says, "You have basically African Americans who were uneducated. Who were farmers. Who were employed by white persons who lived and existed at the whim and capri of their white employers." He went on to say, "When you have anyone or any one group who controls everything to the disadvantage of the other group, you have a situation that is subject to persons being taken advantage of."

The alleged clinical study conducted by the U S Public Health Service initially enrolled 600 men, half of whom had unwittingly already contracted syphilis. They were given free medical care and meals, but were never told they had syphilis nor were they ever treated for it even after penicillin became the standard treatment to combat the disease. Author James Jones says the study's doctors rationalized their actions as being for a "greater good."

 "They thought if they could document that syphilis was indeed a killer in African Americans, as it was in whites, that they might shame the states into appropriating more money and maybe doing something about this public health menace," says James Jones author of "Bad Blood" Tuskegee Study.

But, in 1972 a newspaper article exposed the deadly results of the study. By then 28 men had died of syphilis and 100 died of related complications, while only 74 of the original group remained alive. One of them went to Fred Gray's advice.

"He thought that the government had taken advantage of him and wanted to know if I could do something about it to help him…I still represent the voice of those men from that day in July 1972 until today," says Gray.

The then Department of Health, Education and Welfare put an end to the project just months after it became public. Gray would lead a class action suit that won millions in reparations and the rights to free medical care and funeral services for the victims and family members who were also infected. Yet, no one associated with the study was criminally prosecuted. Gray fought to make sure it wouldn't happen again.

 "There is now federal law which prohibits what took place in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study from take place today," said Gray.

Jones said, "What happened in Tuskegee violates our sense of what is right and wrong. It doesn't pass the nose test. It's people being lied to. It is people being put at risk and its people having their lives shortened. And I think people who did that should have been held accountable."

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