By Drew Gibson
There is a vitality and a glow about Andrew Young that shields you from his frailty. The former UN Ambassador & Congressman can still draw back on that old preacher’s toolbox of rhetorical flourish to stir up something in his shifting cast of congregants. That today was a Sunday and that he would be followed on the Keep The Promise stage by the Reverend Al Sharpton suited the occasion and his message. It was an old message, one that reverberates throughout the scripture he cites and civil rights battles he had a hand in winning. His stories are worn, but no one cares, least of all Andrew Young. I am not sure of the number of times he has related to friends, family and the general public the genesis of Dr. King’s I Have a Dream Speech on the Washington Mall those many years ago, but I do know that it never loses its resonance. If anything, the stories of his time by the side of MLK have been imbued with mythic importance, growing imperceptibly bigger like a rogue snowball rolling down a hill. Men like Andrew Young are the caretakers of our dreams and memories. They are the men and women who remind us of where we are by telling us about where we used to be.
Therefore, it should come as no shock that Reverend Young would provide us with a parable for where the HIV/AIDS movement in America stands today. At the end of his speech, Young related to the crowd an anecdote from his run for Congress in 1972. So the story goes, Young found himself 4 percentage points in the hole to his opponent on the eve of the election. With little he could do to stem the tide of public opinion at such a late date, Young asked God to help him find some way to close the gap and win the election. Shortly thereafter and in what seemed to be defiance of his prayers, the heavens opened up and it began to pour rain all through the night and all the next day until after the polls has closed. In order to win, Young needed huge voter turn-out and the rains rendered this unlikely, seeming to seal his fate. But then, as the poll numbers began pouring in, it became evident that Young had gotten fantastic voter support and that his constituents in Georgia had braved the inclement weather to the tune of a 74% voter turnout and an unlikely victory for Young. Just 10 years earlier, he had been marching with Dr. King to get the right to vote and now he would be in Congress.
It is an inspiring story, but ultimately that’s all it is—a story. While it may have been true and possible 40 years ago, that is no longer the world that we live in. Georgia’s 5th district is still represented in Congress by a civil rights pioneer in the person of John Lewis, but the fervor and democratic activism of the early 70s is long gone. While Lewis defeated Republican challenger Fenn Little with almost 3/4 of the vote, the turnout for the election was a dismal 28%. After 4 decades, the allure of the ballot box had all but disappeared and was replaced by a pervading sense of apathy and distrust. While the idea that individual suffrage was an inalienable human right had not changed, the public’s perception of the efficacy of exercising that right had. Lewis has been their representative for more than two decades and the Mayor’s Office in the Atlanta has been occupied by a black man or woman for all but 4 of the past 30 years. And yet, Georgia’s poverty rate of 18.7% in 2010 was the highest it had been since 1983 and placed The Peach State in the bronze medal spot for poverty nationwide. It’s easy to understand why people aren’t as willing to stand out in the rain and catch cold to exercise their democratic right.
This parabola of enthusiasm must be kept in mind when thinking about something like The Keep The Promise March on Washington. By no stretch of the imagination would the crowd in attendance this past Sunday be described as overwhelming. Nor was it disappointing. I don’t pretend to know the expectations and projections of the march organizers, but the scene on Sunday was pretty much what one would expect. There were enough activists and spectators to form a clump of humanity about 20 rows deep in front of the stage, but not so many that when a camera panned down on them you couldn’t see patches of grass mottling the picture. I’m not going to hazard a guess as to how many people were in attendance. However, I can say it was enough to be impressive and stirring when marching down Constitution Ave while remaining disjointed and half-full in an open field by the Washington Monument.
Ultimately, whether it’s a polling place in Atlanta or a green space in DC, the problem remains the same. How do you circle the wagons around an issue that people think has already been, or will never be, solved? In 1963, it was patently clear what the two sides of the coin were. You couldn’t really waffle between backing Dr. King and rallying for George Wallace. One of the few beauties of bigotry is that it gives people a clear dividing line for them to take a stance on either side of. It’s hard to rationalize the idea of wanting segregation and equal rights at the same time. Likewise, the battle against AIDS was fairly cut and dry twenty years ago. It was a terminal illness with no cure and no real hope that was rapidly picking off the young men (and women) of the world one by one. HIV truly was the plague reborn and re-imagined for a modern world. Yet, to add to the horror it seemed to go after those who were full of life and potential rather than for the aged and the ailing like diseases ought to. Then, antiretroviral therapy happened.
We can call it the Magic Johnson Effect. With the advent of life-saving HIV medications, the disease ceased to be a death sentence and—by extension—ceased to capture the public’s imagination. Ever since the mid-90s, public interest and awareness of HIV/AIDS has been dipping down. It’s what happens when a thing goes from being a terminal disease to a chronic illness. That word: chronic. It suggests the opposite of death. Things that are chronic are never-ending. They don’t go away, but at best lurk in the distance only to resurface at the opportune moment. Diabetes is a chronic illness. Arthritis is a chronic illness. Multiple Sclerosis is a chronic illness. They are burdens and people don’t like to think about burdens, much less a burden that will never leave. It is the same reason we as a nation became so disheartened following the civil rights movement. We thought the problem—this whole “race” thing—would be done with. But, it turned out to be a Hydra and as soon as we had lopped off it’s head, two more sprung up in its place.
In his speech, Andrew Young referred to the Polio epidemic as a lodestar for the HIV/AIDS movement. It was 60 years ago that Jonas Salk first tested his Polio vaccine, yet the disease still exists in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan today. This is a disease with a cure. Not a life-long treatment like HIV, but an honest to God vaccine that prevents the disease from ever infecting you. If you are reading this right now you have had a Polio vaccination as a child. What does it say that a disease with a simple, four dose treatment to eradicate it still exists? More than anything, it says that HIV is going to be with us for a long time. Our task is to realize that this does not mean defeat and should not discourage us. There will be marches on Washington in support of the HIV community for the next 50+ years and that is a blessed thing. We must search for a cure without making it our benchmark of success. If we do, then we are sure to fail. Instead, we must embrace the struggle, as hard as it is, and try to see the victory in watching positive people who attended the 2012 march coming back to march in 2022. Endgame is not near and that’s fine. Right now the HIV/AIDS movement is all three yards and a cloud a dust. It’s not pretty and it doesn’t make headlines like it used to, but it’s moving forward. We march on, not knowing exactly where we’re going, but assured of the fact that our movement means we’re still here and still fighting.