Mayor Adam O’Neal of Belhaven, NC marches to D.C. to draw attention to the rural health crisis in his town and across the country.

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Rev. Barber, Bob Zellner, and Mayor O'Neal at Save Our Hospital Press Conference | Credit Byron Buck

The Pungo District Hospital in Belhaven has been helping people in rural North Carolina give birth, get healthy and stay alive for more than 60 years. On July 1, Vidant, a corporation that in took over in 2011 with a promise to “improve, sustain, and expand” the hospital, shut it down in the name of profitability. On July 5, a 48 year old woman named Portia Gibbs had a heart attack. With the closing of Pungo, the nearest hospital was now more than 80 miles away. She was unable to get there, and died in the back of an ambulance.

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The marchers at DC's MLK memorial. | Credit Byron Buck

On July 14, Mayor Adam O’Neal, a self described conservative Republican, began walking 273 miles from Belhaven to Washington, DC. He walked in Portia’s name and for the countless people in rural areas across the state and country who are being denied life saving health care by the pursuit of profit. Walking with him was 75 year old Bob Zellner, an early SNCC organizer and current Moral Mondays activist. Mayor O’Neal was sent off at the beginning of his walk and greeted at the end of it by Rev. William Barber, North Carolin NAACP President and a leader of the Forward Together/Moral Mondays movement. When the Mayor arrived in DC there was a rally and press conference on the national mall that I attended. Rev. Barber, Bob Zellner, Mayor O’Neal, and all of us at the rally were united by a core belief — that stopping people from dying in the name of profit is not an issue of left or right but of right or wrong.

You can see the Mayor’s speech at the rally below:

The denial of Medicaid expansion to more than 300,000 people in North Carolina was one of the factors in Vidant’s hospital closure decision. Twenty rural hospitals have closed recently in states refusing medicaid expansion. At the DC rally Crystal Price, a 27 year old worker at Wendy’s with cervical cancer and no health coverage, spoke of what it means to put ideology ahead of lives. Rev. Barber ended the rally with the words of Langston Hughes’ call to “Let America be America Again” –

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

You can learn more about this fight for “America to be America again” and see how you can help at www.saveourhospital.org. For more information on the rural health crisis and Mayor O’Neal’s march, you can read this article from Al-Jazeera America.