For the first time in its 157-year history, the Mississippi State Medical Association has selected an African-American physician to lead its organization.

The association, with nearly 5,000 members, elected Dr. Claude Brunson, senior adviser to the vice chancellor for external affairs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and professor of anesthesiology, to serve as its president-elect.

That means Brunson will become president the same year the nation recognizes the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. In 1964, the physician in the position Brunson will assume opposed hospital admitting privileges for black physicians.

Still, Brunson “wasn’t elected because he’s African American,” said Dr. Randy Easterling, who serves alongside Brunson on the state Board of Medical Licensure. “He was elected because he’s the best person for the job.”

The new MSMA president, Dr. James Rish, an internal medicine physician at North Mississippi Medical Center in Tupelo, is making Medicaid the top priority, saying he wants to ensure that the needs of patients, doctors and all Mississippians are met.

“We’re going to stay out of the expansion debate,” he said. “What we would like to see is revamped, different care models.”

He is ecstatic about Brunson’s selection. “Claude will do a wonderful job as he already has as board chair,” he said. “I have the utmost confidence in him.”

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