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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Shame of Medicine: The Case of General Edwin Walker

In 1962 James Meredith, an African-American student, tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi. His admission was opposed by Ross Barnett, the Democratic governor of the state, former Major General Edwin A. Walker (1909–1993), a decorated hero of World War II and prominent “right-winger,” and a group of segregationist white students. To ensure Meredith’s enrollment and maintain order, President John F. Kennedy sent 400 federal marshals and 3,000 troops to Oxford, Mississippi.

On September 29, 1962, Walker issued a public statement: “This is Edwin A. Walker. I am in Mississippi beside Governor Ross Barnett. I call for a national protest against the conspiracy from within. Rally to the cause of freedom in righteous indignation, violent vocal protest, and bitter silence under the flag of Mississippi at the use of Federal troops. . . .”

The campus demonstration led to a riot in which two people were killed and six federal marshals were injured. Importantly, according to a United Press report, “During a lull in the rioting, General Walker mounted a Confederate statue on the campus and begged the students to cease their violence. . . . His plea was greeted with one massive jeer.”

Unnoticed at the time and forgotten today is the fact that while the federal government used the military to guarantee Meredith’s constitutional right to equal protection of the laws, it used psychiatry to deprive Walker of his constitutional right to trial. This was another example of my long-held view that we are replacing social controls justified by race with social controls justified by psychiatric diagnosis.

Guilt by Diagnosis

Arrested on four federal charges, including “inciting, assisting, and engaging in an insurrection against the authority of the United States,” Walker was taken before a U.S. commissioner and held pending the posting of $100,000 bond. While he was making arrangements to post bail, Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered Walker flown, on a government aircraft, to Springfield, Missouri, to be incarcerated in the U.S. Medical Center for Prisoners for “psychiatric observation” on suspicion that he was mentally unfit to stand trial.

Walker’s entry in Wikipedia mentions neither this nor the ensuing confrontation between Walker’s legal team and the government’s psychiatric team. The reader is told only that Walker “posted bond and returned home to Dallas, where he was greeted by a crowd of 200 supporters. After a federal grand jury adjourned in January 1963 without indicting him, the charges were dropped.”

How could this happen? Was it legal? It was legal, and in Psychiatric Justice (1965) I presented a detailed, documented account of how it happened. Here I wish to add a few personal details not previously reported.

News of Walker’s psychiatric incarceration had barely hit the newspapers when I received a telephone call from Robert Morris, then president of the University of Dallas, formerly chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Internal Security. He identified himself as one of Walker’s attorneys, explained he had been given my name by William F. Buckley, Jr., and asked me to help his team to free Walker from psychiatric imprisonment.

I flew to Dallas and spent a long afternoon and evening with Morris and his team of lawyers. They believed it was obvious that Walker was sane. They wanted me to examine him and say so in court. It was not easy to disabuse them of their conventional beliefs about mental illness as a medical disease and psychiatry as a medical specialty. I summarized the evidence for my view that psychiatry is a threat to civil liberties, especially to the liberties of individuals stigmatized as “right-wingers,” illustrated by the famous case of Ezra Pound, who was locked up for 13 years while the government ostensibly waited for his “doctors” to restore his competence to stand trial. Now the Kennedys and their psychiatrists were in the process of doing the same thing to Walker.

I reminded the attorneys that a courtroom confrontation concerning his “sanity” would not be a search for truth or justice (which they well understood), and noted that they were on the losing side of the civil rights battle (which they well knew). I urged them to avoid unnecessary dramatics and focus on freeing Walker from psychiatric detention as their sole goal. Finally, I persuaded them that in a Mississippi courtroom, I–with a foreign name and a foreign accent–would not be the best possible expert for Walker and talked them out of their plan to have me examine him and engage in a contest of “expert opinions” about the predictably dire diagnoses of the government’s psychiatric experts. Instead, I proposed that they “nominate” a prominent Dallas university psychiatrist as their defense expert–that is, a local, publicly employed physician who could ill afford to declare Walker insane on the basis of his “racist” views. (Before the Civil War, proslavery physicians in the South diagnosed black slaves who tried to escape to the North as mentally ill, “suffering from drapetomania.” In the Walker case, pro-integration psychiatrists in the North diagnosed white segregationists as mentally ill, “suffering from racism.”) Next morning I flew back to Syracuse.

For Whose Own Good?

A competency hearing was scheduled. Dr. Robert L. Stubblefield, chief psychiatrist at the Southwest Medical Center in Dallas, was to examine Walker and testify in his defense. The prosecution’s expert was Dr. Manfred Guttmacher, long-time chief medical officer at Baltimore City’s Supreme Court. Walker’s attorneys had no trouble exposing Guttmacher for the evil quack he was. Guttmacher kept referring to Walker as if Walker were his patient and supported the prosecution’s request that Walker be incarcerated (“hospitalized”) for up to three months, testifying under oath that doing so would be “for Mr. Walker’s own good from a medical point of view.”

In the end, the government’s psychiatric plot failed. Walker was declared mentally fit to stand trial, a federal grand jury refused to indict him, and the charges against him were dropped.

Less than two years later, my view that organized American psychiatry was becoming overtly political, seeking the existential invalidation and psychiatric destruction of individuals who do not share the psychiatric establishment’s left-liberal “progressive” views, received further dramatic support. In 1964, when Senator Barry Goldwater was the Republican candidate for president, 1,189 psychiatrists publicly declared–without benefit of examination–that Goldwater was “psychologically unfit to be President of the United States.” Many offered a diagnosis of “paranoid schizophrenia” as the basis for their judgment.

Psychiatry is despotism in the service of the Therapeutic State, rationalized as “progressive” science and “compassionate” medical care. In the past, racial stigmatization and segregation were indispensable for the political class and the State. Today, psychiatric stigmatization and segregation are indispensable for the political class and the State. This is why no exposure of brutal psychiatric injustices makes a dent in the mental health system’s lofty social status as a benevolent, ethical, scientific medical discipline.

  • Dr. Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) was a Psychiatrist, academic, and champion of individual rights. He devoted much of his life to campaigning against many aspects of conventional psychiatry, in particular involuntary psychiatric treatment and commitment.