Black leaders speak from heart about COVID, Christmas

By , Daily Memphian Updated: December 21, 2020 5:31 PM CT | Published: December 18, 2020 3:32 PM CT

With the strength of their own stories, local African American leaders in medicine, faith and politics looked into their computer cameras early Friday, Dec. 18, and poured out pleas for people to do right to slow down virus transmission.

As they spoke, the Shelby County Health Department reported 23 new deaths, more than double the highest daily rate of COVID-19 fatalities since the pandemic began.

“We gather out of deep concern for our city, this county, and particularly the African American community. The situation has reached a point in Memphis that we are compelled to say something,” said the Rev. J. Lawrence Turner, noting Tennessee now leads the world in the rate of new cases.

Coronavirus: Shelby County reports 23 deaths, 600-plus cases

“We are in the middle of the Thanksgiving surge of this virus, and unless we change our behavior, we will witness a surge upon a surge as we prepare to bring in a new year,” said Turner, senior pastor at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church.

He asked church leaders, under no mandate to close, for wisdom to cancel in-person services.

“So much as we are invested in saving souls, you should also be concerned about saving lives,” Turner said.

Speakers included District 29 state Sen. Raumesh Akbari; Dr. Reginald Coopwood, president/CEO of Regional One Health; Dr. Cassandra Howard, chief medical officer, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare; and Ricky Wilkins, attorney and founder of the Black PAC Memphis.

Collectively, they want elected officials to push for a statewide masking mandate, Medicaid expansion and accountability to the tripwires released in early August that would have closed bars and restaurants when the seven-day average of new cases hit 450.

As of Dec. 17, the weekly average was 814 cases.

Expect new restrictions on gatherings

“Now is not the time to let up,” Akbari said. “Now, it’s the time to be more vigilant than ever. Tennessee has the worst rate of infection in the entire world. I really want that to hit home. … That means that some of the things that you’ve been doing that you’ve gotten away with, you might not be able to get away with this time.”

Nationally, African Americans represent 12% of the population but 20% of COVID-19 deaths, devastating a population that is underserved medically. Locally, Black people represent 52% of the population of Shelby County but 57% of its COVID cases and 60% of deaths. 

Tennessee has the worst rate of infection in the entire world. I really want that to hit home. … That means that some of the things that you’ve been doing that you’ve gotten away with, you might not be able to get away with this time.

Raumesh Akbari
State Senator, District 29

The population has historic reasons for not buying into medical breakthroughs, including the Tuskegee syphilis experiment with African American men in Alabama, which lasted from 1932-1972. None of the 399 men who had latent cases of syphilis were treated with penicillin, which by 1947 had become the standard treatment.

“I would encourage us to be courageous, to trust science, to read for yourself,” Wilkins said. “Don’t listen to a social media meme or some rant from someone who’s all of a sudden a scientist or doctor.”

The Moderna vaccine, which was approved Friday by the FDA for emergency use, was developed by a team that includes Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, lead scientist for coronavirus vaccine research at the National Institutes of Health.

And, Wilkins pointed out, Dr. James Hildreth, president of Meharry Medical College and an infectious disease doctor, was a member of the FDA advisory panel that approved the Pfizer vaccine.

“I do not think they would sign off on something that would be a risk to our community,” Wilkins said.

Doctors on the panel Friday morning told stories of people dying of COVID in hospitals that haunt them.

“The saddest thing that I hear are people who are in ICU and about to be put on the ventilator say, ‘I wish I had a believed back when I had a chance,’” Coopwood said. “And you hear those stories nationally over and over and over. ‘I thought this was a hoax. I thought this was fake. I didn’t think it would affect me.’”

The nearly hourlong video is available on the Facebook page of the Black Clergy Collaborative of Memphis.


Sen. Ramesh Akbari Rev. J. Lawrence Turner Dr. Reginald Coopwood Ricky Wilkins Dr. Cassandra Howard
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.


Reading comments and joining the conversation are some of the many benefits of subscribing. Join the conversation by clicking the View Comments button below. Not a subscriber? Click here. 

Our commenting policy can be viewed here