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What Is Lillian Mobley Fighting For? 

Saving King/Drew, the hospital in the hood

Thursday, Jan 15 2004
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Building photos by Slobodan Dimitrov

Every weekday for at least six weeks last fall, between noon and 1 p.m., Lillian Mobley picketed at the main entrance to Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center, the county hospital that sits in the long-impoverished triangle of Compton, Watts/Willowbrook and Southeast Los Angeles. Many of those days, Mobley was joined by a small band of supporters. Their signs: “Save Our Hospital” and “We’re Staking Our Claim.” But on some days, Mobley, a determined-looking woman with a habit of holding her chin up even in moments of rest, stood vigil alone, silently exhorting passersby not to protest but to take notice of a black institution that is becoming more endangered by the day.

She rarely gets the media attention of other Watts activists, like Ted Watkins or “Sweet” Alice Harris, but everybody connected to King/Drew knows who Mobley is. She serves on the board of Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, which is across the street from King and was named for the pioneering black doctor and blood researcher who officially made King/Drew a teaching hospital in the early 1980s, establishing both a medical and an educational institution in the middle of the hood. Mobley also serves on a host of other committees and organizations, most significantly the special task force convened by county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and headed by former Surgeon General David Satcher to address the many problems at King/Drew. A research clinic at the hospital was named after her. There is no question that Mobley is dedicated to the survival of King/Drew. She carried her sign not so much as a protest against the growing swell of bad press and managerial shakeups at the beleaguered institution but as a daily reminder to the world that she cares about the hospital’s fate, that, for good or ill, it is indeed her place.

And lately, her place is in crisis. King/Drew has been unsteady on its feet for much of its life, and the newspapers have been reporting for the last dozen years a litany of troubles: racial tension among top management, needless patient deaths, absentee or negligent supervising doctors, students matriculating through the residency programs alarmingly ill-prepared for their chosen professions. By late 2003 the story appeared to have evolved into the last stages of a terminal condition: Struggling hospital meets an end that, in retrospect, was only a matter of time.

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But Lillian Mobley knows that there is much more to the story, and to King/Drew itself. For King/Drew is a brick-and-mortar manifestation of the Dream, a towering signifier of the last serious age of possibility that many blacks say is not done, not yet. I know the Dream well. It is shorthand for the Great Society vision of true racial progress and equal access most famously articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. himself, and assumed as spiritual community property by blacks in the 1960s who felt — and still feel — that they had the greatest stake in the Dream and every reason to follow its course. More than thirty years and innumerable disappointments later, the Dream is battered, stagnated, in many ways circumvented, awaiting all the things that should have happened institutionally, politically and culturally. But it lives, and a critical number still believe and still follow. Lillian Mobley believes in the Dream.

Much about Mobley recalls Harriet Tubman — her dark complexion and tendency to wear African-style dress, and a fixed, fierce expression that reflects the uncompromising approach to black concerns that’s been her trademark for at least 30 years. She can be maternal too: Whenever I see her, she softens, breaks into a smile and inquires eagerly after my father, whom she’s known for years as a fellow foot soldier in the battle to realize King’s Dream in its fullest sense.

Right now, Mobley is fighting on one burning front of that battle — a battle for the continued growth of a teaching hospital in the black community where it took root. It is a battle for personal and cultural enrichment being fought on public ground, a conflicted but common scenario in black history that is notably lacking in wealth, property or other material enrichment accumulated over time. Blacks consider this county hospital, like public schools, to be for us even though it is not by us. The tension between ownership and stewardship is but one of many things that has complicated its progress.

Historically, big public entities have opted out of serving the colored public, leaving blacks to create those entities on their own, among themselves. This was actually a workable solution in the days of segregation, when the constant threat of marginalization birthed institutions like Howard University, Meharry Medical School and other havens where the best and brightest black intellectuals created out of pressing necessity places to excel on their own terms. But if those days were officially gone by the late 1960s, when the last vestiges of Jim Crow were outlawed for good, the black mistrust of public entities remained — along with the feeling that any project created for the benefit of blacks must still be done by black people themselves.

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