Coretta Scott King

Keynote Address - AIDS Memorial Quilt Initiative - Oct.18, 1999

Coretta Scott King
October 18, 1999— Atlanta, Georgia
Launch of the Historically-Black Colleges And Universities AIDS Memorial Quilt Initiative
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Thank you, Sister Sandy Thurman, Director of the White House office on AIDS, for your very gracious introduction. And thank all of you for your warm welcome. Mr. Scott Miller, HBCU Initiative Coordinator of the Names Project, Mr. Andy Lives, Executive Director of the Names Project, Ms. Andrea Shorter, DEPUTY DIRECTOR of the Names Project, distinguished guests and friends, it is a great pleasure to be here with you today and to be your keynote speaker for this important initiative. I commend the organizers of the AIDS Memorial Quilt Initiative for doing such an outstanding job of putting together this program. Your efforts have educated people across the nation about the causes, prevention and treatment of AIDS, and I believe you have helped save many, many lives. I applaud the great work all of you are doing to alleviate the massive suffering caused not only by the physical effects of AIDS, but also by the social attitudes towards people with H.I.V.

I do appreciate being invited to deliver the keynote address for this launching of the historically-black colleges and universities initiative of the AIDS memorial quilt. I knew this was an invitation I had to accept, because I believe very strongly that this project addresses the most urgent health crisis facing the African American community, and our young people in particular - the prevention and treatment of AIDS. I am encouraged by the increasing awareness of the AIDS crisis in the African American community, well-reflected in the formation of groups like AIDS education and services for minorities, the start up of the first-ever black church HIV/AIDS Institute and now this special initiative of the Names Project and the AIDS memorial quilt. I have long felt that the making of quilts is one of the greatest American art forms, because quilts not only give comfort and warmth, but also say so much about heritage and family traditions that give meaning to our lives.

Maybe I feel this way because most of the women in our community, and especially my mother made beautiful quilts and every time I see one I think of her. When I was growing up in the 1930's and 40's my mother pieced and quilted lots of quilts, which we used to sleep under instead of blankets. I remember having to sleep under four or five of them when it was very cold. A lot of time and love went into making those quilts. Many mothers, family members and friends have sewn their love into the AIDS memorial quilt, including yours truly. After a dear friend of mine named Michael Ginser lost his battle with AIDS, I joined with some of his family, friends and associates at the King Center and we added our stitches in his memory. And this small act gave us all a sense of community with the families of all the people who have died with AIDS. I don't think any blanket in history has given so much comfort to so many as the AIDS memorial quilt. It's true that AIDS is a disease that affects all races. And it is certainly true that any person of any race can easily get AIDS through risky behavior, such as unprotected sex or intravenous drug use. But that doesn't mean that African Americans don't experience disproportionate victimization by AIDS.

Right now, AIDS is the number one cause of death for African American males between the ages of 25 and 44, and the second leading cause of death for females in that age group. Half of all new H.I.V. Infections of young people between the ages of 13 and 24 are African Americans.

Clearly, the black community has a critical interest in programs to prevent AIDS and provide the best treatment possible. And black college students, who are in the most vulnerable age group, can play a major role in eradicating this deadly disease from our community. As the intellectual and activist vanguard of the black community, black college students and faculty can do a lot to spread awareness about the dangers of the AIDS pandemic and how it impacts on young people in particular. And if you are interested in protecting and saving the lives of black people, there is no cause more worthy of your efforts.

You may have heard that the rate of increase in the number of people infected with H.I.V. has slowed, and that is true. You may have also heard that people with AIDS are living longer than they did five or six years ago, and that is generally true also, thanks to the introduction of new medicines and treatment programs, and that is generally true also. But the most deadly mistake you could make is to delude yourself that AIDS is no longer a threat to your life.

It is tragic in the most literal sense of the word that many people still think of AIDS as a "gay" disease. Although it is true that a disproportionate percentage of people who have AIDS and H.I.V. are gay males, it is important to understand that AIDS and H.I.V. are growing rapidly among heterosexual people .

Today in the 20 counties in the metro Atlanta area, it is estimated that 22.2 percent of individuals living with H.I.V. were infected by heterosexual contact. Only 31 percent of patients at Atlanta's Grady Hospital AIDS clinic, which is one of the finest AIDS treatment facilities in the nation, report a history of homosexual or bisexual behavior and 23 percent of its patients are females. Another 18.3 percent in the 20 Atlanta Metro County study were infected when injecting drugs. Unprotected sex and intravenous drug use are like Russian Roulette, only the odds of surviving AIDS are probably worse. If you love life, if you value your future, if you care about protecting your community, do not let anyone talk you into dangerous behavior that puts you immediately at risk for an H.I.V. infection. And if anyone, tries to tell you, don't worry it is safe, that is your clearest possible signal that he or she is not interested in your personal safety, and is no friend of yours.

How many times do we have to say it? AIDS is one of the most deadly killers of black people, and I think anyone who cares about the future of black America had better be speaking out about AIDS, calling for preventative measures, increased funding for research and treatment. As African Americans, we should also be very concerned about the devastating effect of AIDS in Mother Africa. AIDS is now the number one killer in Sub-Saharan Africa, more than any other illness. Every day AIDS kills 5,500 African men, women and children. It is estimated that 40 million African children will become orphans in the next decade as a result of the AIDS pandemic. In developing nations, health spending per person is thought to average less than $10 a year. The most recent drug treatment therapies used in the U.S. and other developed nations cost between $10,000 to $15,000 per year. We have got to press for more funds for AIDS research, so we can develop affordable medicines and treatment therapies for the people of Africa and other developing nations.

One of the most tragic aspects of AIDS is that it thrives on ignorance, bigotry and fear. In fact, I have no doubt that homophobia has worsened and prolonged the AIDS crisis. It is particularly sad to me when I hear black people, including some in leadership positions, making homophobic comments and attacking the human rights of gay and lesbian people. African Americans have suffered for too long because of prejudice and bigotry to be parroting the rhetoric of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups who bash people because of their sexual orientation. We ought to extend to gay and lesbian people the same respect and dignity we claim for ourselves. Every person is a child of God and every human being is entitled to full human rights.

The gay bashers and homophobic people are the best allies AIDS could have. By preaching hatred and fear of gay people, they are creating a climate that discourages openness and education about AIDS which can help prevent its spread. They spread shame and guilt where their should be compassion and healing.

Yet in a way, the silence of good people has been even more harmful than the destructive statements of the homophobic bigots. There is a very human tendency to direct one's attention elsewhere when confronted with the stark reality of deadly disease. But, if we are going to end this terrible epidemic, it is time to end the silence, time for good and decent people to become informed about AIDS and become a pro-active part of the solution, instead of being a silent part of the problem. To eradicate AIDS, we must give our medical researchers and scientists all of the support they need to find the cure. But we must first and foremost cure our own hearts of the fear and ignorance that leads to denial and ostracism of our brothers and sisters who have AIDS. The real shame falls not on the people with AIDS, but on those who would deny their humanity.

I have long supported the cause of AIDS education and I have spoken out in many of my speeches and lectures for increased funding for AIDS prevention, treatment and research. The King Center has supported AIDS-related causes for a number of years, including hosting AIDS 101 workshops, hosting a group of H.I.V. positive or AIDS-impacting children and teenagers from the camp heartland journey of hope, who were touring the nation in a bus. These courageous young people were turning their unearned suffering into a positive campaign to educate the public about AIDS-related issues, as they bear on the lives of young people. These young people are an inspiration because they refuse to be disheartened or discouraged and they are showing us how to live positive lives of service, despite the adversity that has been forced on them. The King Center has also hosted Christmas parties for H.I.V. positive and AIDS-impacted children we have also lobbied in support of the Ryan White Act and other AIDS-related legislation. The other thing we have to remember is that AIDS is not only a medical and a social problem. It is also a political problem. We won't see adequate funding for AIDS research, prevention and treatment programs until we make the political leadership at every level of representative government understand that they will be held accountable for everything they do or don't do with respect to AIDS.

And let us not forget that the AIDS crisis is also part of a larger crisis of health security in the United States. If we want more effective AIDS research, prevention and treatment programs, we have to be equally caring about the suffering of the people with many other devastating illnesses. The bigotry experienced by people with AIDS is unique. But there is also prejudice against people with disabilities and other less well-known diseases and illnesses. We have got to stand firm for a more compassionate health care system, which leaves no person behind --- a system that takes responsibility to insure that no citizen be denied medical care because they lack adequate insurance. There is something wrong with a system that requires telethons for sick people, but always has a blank check ready for the Pentagon. The Cold War is over, but we still have a Cold War military budget, which is draining needed financial and human resources that should be invested in the health security of the American people. People with AIDS, muscular dystrophy and sickle cell anemia, among many other illnesses are, in a very real sense, also victims of militarism.

It is regrettable that a coalition of special interests, who want to preserve the status quo of health care in America has been able to stop meaningful health care reform. That's why I am supporting the Dingell-Norwood Patient's Rights Act, which just passed the U.S. House of Representatives, as a significant step forward to a national health care system that serves every citizen. And I urge you to do the same. We need to send a message to our elected officials that a decent health care system for the American people must become the number one priority of our national security. So today I'm going to ask you to do several things to help put an end to the threat of AIDS in the black community, the nation and world, in addition to making a commitment to avoid risky behavior that can lead to an HIV infection.

First, educate yourself. I have shared with you some statistics today, which show that AIDS is a threat to everyone. But there is a lot more for you to learn. I urge you to read up on AIDS and the dynamics of this crisis. Organizations like the AIDS Survival Project, AID Atlanta and the White House Office on AIDS have a wealth of information to share, and all you have to do is ask for it. Then share what you have learned. If you can inform a friend who is engaging in risky behavior, you just might save a life. Those of you who are good writers can help put the word out through your school newspaper and other publications. Those of you who can preach or deliver a speech can also educate hundreds of your fellow students at once. Lobby your elected officials --- federal, state and local --- to take action in support of AIDS education, research, prevention and treatment reforms. And if they refuse to help, do what you can to replace them with someone who will. Volunteer some of your time for campaigns like the Names Project, delivering food to homebound AIDS patients or working at an AIDS counseling hotline.

Call AID Atlanta at (404) 870-7741 and ask them how you can help. You can donate what you can to AIDS-related charities. And, speak out against homophobia and all forms of prejudice, bigotry and discrimination. Become a voice for tolerance and an advocate for human dignity for all people. Make a commitment to never let a bigoted remark go unchallenged. If you can do any of these things, then you will be a part of the solution, and you will have made a difference. Once Mother Theresa was asked where she found the strength to care so tirelessly for the terminally ill. And she replied, "It's not hard because in each one, I see the face of Christ in one of his more distressing disguises." and, in a way, that is the challenge we all face -- to see the face of Christ in his many distressing disguises -- the sick and destitute, the beggar, the dying, the broken-hearted and forgotten. When we learn how to do this, then the same spirit of healing that empowered Mother Theresa will inspire us to heal our communities, nation and world. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said "We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, bound together in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly" and I think this applies with poetic precision to the AIDS memorial quilt. And the great acapella group, Sweet Honey In The Rock has a beautiful song about this "single garment of destiny." the song is called "Patchwork Quilt," and I will leave you with the concluding lyrics of this song:

"I feel the warmth of your lives
oh and you will live forever
you know that I'll be loving you
just like a patchwork quilt

My heart spills over
flowing with tears
I cry for your suffering
and for your shortened years
and I'll take you with me as I walk away
remembering you who have died with AIDS
yes, I'll remember your names
oh and you will live forever
you know that I'll be loving you
just like a patchwork quilt
I'll be loving you like a patchwork quilt"

Thank you and god bless you all.

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