In Mississippi the story of Dr. L.C. Dorsey is legendary.
It is a story of perseverance and courage; a story of a woman born into poverty in the Mississippi Delta in 1938, who at an early age set out to find the path to a better life. A child of tenant farmer parents, Lula C. (“L.C.”) Dorsey would go on to play a major role in the development of the national health center model.
Like many in Bolivar County, Mississippi, Dr. Dorsey’s life was a struggle for survival. Discrimination and hardship were rampant for families working in the fields. Opportunities for education, jobs paying a decent wage, and health care were few, if nonexistent.
The advent of the civil rights movement coupled with the emergence of anti-poverty programs aimed at providing people the tools to help themselves aided Dr. Dorsey, as she invested her energies in every opportunity to learn, train, and use and her talents to fight for and help others.
Dr. Dorsey began her journey in the 1960s as a civil rights advocate. Recruited by the prominent civil and women’s rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, she became involved with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party – organizing boycotts and demonstrations. She also began to work with the newly created Head Start program (a War on Poverty initiative) encouraging families to enroll their preschoolers.
In 1966, with her growing connections and leadership within the community, she was asked to join the staff at Tufts-Delta Health Center, which was the first rural Community Health Center in America.
Her role at the federally funded health center was to mobilize community support for its multifaceted programs aimed at a mostly Black population facing poor health, malnutrition, and poverty. The health center model was transformative because it sought not only to treat illness but to directly intervene against the root causes of it – including poverty, lack of food and jobs, and poor drinking water.
Dr. Dorsey became a leading force at the center and, ultimately, served as its director from 1988 to 1995. In addition, she is credited, along with Dr. John Hatch, the co-founder of the Delta Health Center, with the establishment of a Farm Cooperative for Bolivar County – which helped hundreds in the area grow and cultivate food for their families.
In an interview with the Rutherford Living History project, Dr. Dorsey talked about the success of the cooperative, both in terms of the participation of hundreds of member families but also of its ability to withstand harassment from external forces:
“We were organized. We had all the political things in place and were participating at different levels. We learned the value of boycotts so we didn’t suffer any firebombings or any such nonsense.”
During this period, Dr. Dorsey, while raising a family of six, was determined to put herself on track to continue her own education. She had dropped out of school at 11. Twenty years later, through a program offered by Tufts University, she acquired her GED. Eventually, she earned a master’s degree from the State University of New York and a Ph.D. in Social Work from Howard University in Washington, D.C. Dr. Dorsey went on to become a Clinical Associate Professor at University of Mississippi Medical Center.
In addition to economic development and health care, Dr. Dorsey was committed to exposing the injustices in the Mississippi prison system, where she gained recognition by the ACLU for her work on prison reform.
The common thread running through all these accomplishments was Dr. Dorsey’s dedication to dismantling the oppressive systems that held back the Black community in the Mississippi Delta and beyond.
In a 1992 interview, Dr. Dorsey summed up her focus on tackling the root causes of social problems:
“The real thing is to understand the political, social, and economic structures and how you overcome [them] if they are barriers or you seize control of them.”
In her lifetime, Dr. Dorsey was honored by numerous national organizations, including the State of Mississippi, for her community involvement and activism. Her legacy and personal story continue to inspire all those who seek a better life and future.
Marilynne Mikulich contributed to this profile.
Video of a 1992 Rutherford Living History interview with Dr. Dorsey
Out in the Rural: A Mississippi Health Center and Its War on Poverty, Thomas J. Ward, Jr. and H. Jack Geiger