Ready for Combat

updated 07/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/26/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

DR. JOYCELYN ELDERS IS IN THE CLINIC at Little Rock's Central High School, "visiting," as she puts it, with a teenage girl pregnant with her second child. "After the baby is born and before you go home, get in your Norplant," says Elders, referring to the new contraceptive device inserted beneath the skin of the arm. "Demand it. Tell them Dr. Elders says to put it in." Then she says in a voice of unmistakable authority: "You need to have the babies when you get ready to have the babies."

Elders's deep, gravelly voice may soon become one of the most recognizable in the country. Director of the Arkansas Department of Public Health, Elders, 59, is President Clinton's choice to be the next U.S. Surgeon General. Yet her confirmation hearings, scheduled for this month, are likely to be anything but routine. For Elders—an unapologetic liberal who may be even more outspoken than former Surgeon General Everett Koop—must get by staunch conservatives in the Senate as well as the concerted campaign of the religious right, which opposes her stances on sex education and" abortion.

Elders supports a physician's right to prescribe marijuana for therapeutic use. She vows to go after the tobacco industry as energetically as she did in Arkansas, where she sought to boost taxes on cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. But most controversial of all are her efforts to stem teenage pregnancy. Elders is an advocate of school-based clinic that would dispense contraceptives, and her stand on abortion is unequivocal. "I am absolutely pro-choice," she says. Nor is she afraid of ruffling her opponents. Pro-lifers, she says, "love little babies, as long as they are in somebody else's uterus."

Says Tom Butler, Elders's deputy at the Arkansas health department, about his boss: "We never had a street fighter like this before. I'm talking about right in your face."

Not that Minnie Joycelyn Elders grew up on the streets. She was born in Schaal, a speck in southwest Arkansas. Her parents, Haller and Curtis Jones, were sharecroppers. The oldest of eight children, Elders spent her early years in a three-room shack. Still, she treasures her childhood. "I felt good about me," she says. "I did not grow up feeling poor, because everyone else was."

In 1949, Elders went on scholarship to Philander Smith College, 120 miles away, in Little Rock. The stipend covered her tuition and some of her expenses; she made up the difference by scrubbing floors. Yet there was never anything servile about her. Her brother Chester remembers the night Joycelyn took him and two younger sisters to see Old Yeller at the drive-in. They were told to park in back in the colored section, but Joycelyn did not. When warned by the attendant that she couldn't stay where she was, Joycelyn said she was going home, inducing tears in her siblings. She and the attendant subsequently reached a compromise, with Joycelyn moving the car back but remaining in the white section. "That was the first time I became aware of what was going on within her," says Chester, now a Little Rock preacher.

Before college, Elders had never even been to a doctor. But she decided to become one after hearing a speech by Dr. Edith Urby Jones, the first black woman to attend the University of Arkansas College of Medicine. Elders enlisted in the Army to qualify for the GI Bill, then attended the University of Arkansas med school, earning her degree in 1960.

In December 1959, Joycelyn visited Little Rock's Horace Mann High School to examine the basketball team—and met coach Oliver Elders. They married two months later and now have two grown sons, Eric, 30, a teacher, and Kevin, 28, a production manager at Johnson & Johnson. The couple live in a large ranch-style house outside Little Rock. It's an easy commute to Hall High School, where Oliver was a highly successful basketball coach until his retirement last month, and the University of Arkansas med school, where Joycelyn taught until she became state health director in 1987.

Elders's appointment to that job was so controversial that the Arkansas Gazette wrote that Governor Clinton had "hurled a lightning bolt" at the state. Later the governor caught a bolt or two himself. Once, when Elders appointed one of his political foes to a health-department job, Clinton was exasperated. "Out of 2.3 million people you can surely find someone else," he complained. But Elders refused to back down, and Clinton accepted it.

Elders plans to be equally forthright at her confirmation hearings. "I feel I am the right person for the job," she says. "But the last thing I worry about is being confirmed. Bill Clinton knows that if I am not confirmed, that is not a tragedy. I just will keep doing exactly what I've been doing. I am what I am."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
GIOVANNA BREU in Little Rock

From Our Partners