Many of Atlanta’s civil rights pioneers and barrier breakers gathered Tuesday at Morehouse School of Medicine for their latest mission: getting their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to encourage other African Americans, particularly older ones, to do so as well.

Those who lined up to get their first shot included baseball legend Hank Aaron and his wife, philanthropist, Billye; Ambassador Andrew Young and his wife, Carolyn; broadcasting executive Xernona Clayton; former U.S. Health & Human Services Secretary Dr. Louis Sullivan and his wife, Ginger; and state Rep. Calvin Smyre, currently the longest-serving member of the Georgia Legislature.

“This is an opportunity to educate the community that this is safe and you can trust it,” said Dr. Sullivan, also the school’s founding dean and president.

State and federal statistics, as well as those from the school, show African Americans have tested positive and died in disproportionate numbers from COVID-19, yet polls find they are among the groups most hesitant to get vaccinated.

The hesitancy is rooted in a horrible history of medical mistreatment of African Americans.

The most cited example is the Tuskegee Experiment. In the early 1930s, doctors deliberately did not treat about 400 Black men with syphilis so the physicians could study the disease. Many men who participated in the research, at what was the Tuskegee Institute, died and infected their loved ones. The Alabama-based study lasted 40 years.

State officials last week expanded vaccine access to adults ages 65 and older, law enforcement officers, firefighters and first responders in areas with adequate supply available. Many elderly Georgians have had trouble finding places to get vaccinated. Morehouse School of Medicine will offer drive-thru vaccinations for older Georgians who sign up through its website the next three Saturdays. The school said it will vaccinate people 75 and older this Saturday and those 65 and older the following Saturdays.

“We would not do this if we did not think it was safe,” said Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice, the school’s president and dean.

ATLANTA - Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms takes a photo of her mother, Sylvia Robinson, as she gets a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine shot at Morehouse School of Medicine on Jan. 5, 2021. ERIC STIRGUS/ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM.

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Concerned Black Clergy leader Rev. Gerald Durley said the organization is working with the school to bring people to the drive-through vaccinations. Durley is trying to dispel myths he’s heard from some about the vaccine.

“Let us use our sound mind and get the vaccinations,” said Durley, quoting, in part, a New Testament Scripture from 2 Timothy.

There were some moments of apprehension Tuesday.

“Are you nervous?,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms asked her mother, Sylvia Robinson, as she prepared to get a shot.

“Yes, but not much,” Robinson replied.

Robinson said afterward she decided to get vaccinated because of the new COVID-19 variant that scientists have said is more contagious.

“It helped me make my decision,” Robinson said.

Hank Aaron, 86, said he decided to get the vaccine after his wife signed up. Aaron marveled at the presence of those who rolled up their sleeves.

“When you see Andy Young, myself and some of the other civil rights leaders, it makes you feel good. For so long, they have opened themselves to do things to help so many other people,” he said. “If I can do something to help prolong someone’s career, that’s what I want to do.”

Vaccine availability

Morehouse School of Medicine will offer COVID-19 vaccines to elderly Georgians during the next three weekends in January. To register, visit