For 40 years, the government treated them like guinea pigs. Friday, it treated them like royalty.
Using all the symbolism and trappings of his office, President Clinton formally apologized on behalf of the United States to the eight survivors of a U.S. Public Health Service study in which treatment for syphilis was withheld from 399 men so the progress of the disease could tracked.
He apologized to them, their families, the heirs of those deceased and to black Americans who have never felt quite the same about their government or medical science since the deception was uncovered in 1972.
“I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist. That can never be allowed to happen again,” Clinton said during an emotional ceremony in the White House East Room.
“The United States did something that was wrong - profoundly, morally wrong,” he said.
“We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry.”
The force of Clinton’s apology, the atmosphere and the dignified nature of the ceremony seemed to strip away much of the cynicism that had preceeded it. The survivors and many family members had urged Clinton to apologize in Tuskegee, Ala., because the crime had occurred there and many of them could not afford to make the trip to Washington. As a compromise, it was beamed to the campus of Tuskegee University.
In the 1930s, black men from Macon County, Ala., were promised free medical care and then denied treatment for a disease they didn’t know they had as part of a government-backed experiment to study the effects of syphilis on black men. The study began in the 1930s and lasted until it was exposed in 1972, affecting the nearly 400 black men, their wives, children and grandchildren.
In 1973, the government agreed to pay $10 million to more than 6,000 survivors and their families.
Five of the eight survivors attended the White House ceremony. Three others were too old and sick to come.
As the Marine band played, a military escort accompanied the survivors, one by one, down a long, redcarpeted hallway to the ornate East Room. Four of the five survivors were brought in in wheelchairs. The fifth, Fred Simmons, a small-framed man who thinks he’s about 110 and took his first plane ride to get here, strutted in on his own.
The survivors’ trips had been paid by the government. The room overflowed with the victims’ families, civil rights leaders and virtually the entire Congressional Black Caucus.
Clinton’s eyes teared up, as did many others in the room, when Herman Shaw, who will turn 95 Sunday, spoke of what he described as a “very tragic and painful chapter in our lives.”
“The wounds, the wounds that were inflicted upon us cannot be undone,” he said. “This ceremony is important because the damage done by the Tuskegee study is much deeper than the wound any of us may have suffered. It speaks to our faith in government and the ability of medical science to serve as a force for good.”