Heroes in the Struggle Gala Reception and Awards Presentation
Black Men Honoring Black Women
Jussie Smollett, Chairman
Saturday, September 16, 2017
Darryl F. Zanuck Theater at 20th Century Fox Studios
© 2017 Black AIDS Institute
An introduction to the Heroes in the Struggle
by Coretta Scott King
December 1, 2001
Few people of African descent, whether they live in Atlanta, Georgia, or Gaborone, Botswana, remain untouched by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Most of us have seen at least one family member, friend, neighbor, or coworker gripped by the disease.
And while AIDS death rates have declined and the pace of new infections has slowed in many non-Black communities, the carnage continues in the Black neighborhoods of Chicago, Montgomery, Washington, D.C., Soweto, and Kingston.
I have lost both family and friends to this horrible disease. And on World AIDS Day 2001, as we marked 20 years of life with AIDS, I joined people around the globe in pausing to mourn my losses. But, as African Americans, we must do more than reflect on the past; we must also prepare ourselves for the long fight ahead. In a way, the silence of good people has been as harmful to the struggle against AIDS as all of the damaging divisiveness and scapegoating that, unfortunately, typified early responses. 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 plague, it is time we all abandon the false security of silence and join the building chorus of those engaged in finding solutions.
The Heroes in the Struggle exhibit honors African American men, women, and young people whose voices have been some of the loudest in that chorus. They are Hollywood celebrities and grassroots activists, community organizers and elected officials, highly trained medical professionals and everyday people who simply saw a need and did what they could to meet it. Together, they have changed the way we deal with this epidemic in areas ranging from politics to religion.
While some of our honorees you will know well, and others you will learn about for the first time, their true significance is in what they represent: the millions of people around the world who have been affected by HIV/AIDS and who have the potential to bring this epidemic to an end. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Everyone can be great, because anybody can serve.”
Celebrities and politicians have a unique opportunity to act on a national or global scale, but mothers, fathers, coaches, deacons, teachers, and classmates can do the real work. Acting one on one, we can choke HIV off one community, one block, one individual at a time. Pedigrees and fame are not prerequisites for service. As Dr. King told us, “You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
How, then, can each of us help? 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 live with this virus. The real shame falls not on the people living with HIV/AIDS, but on those who would deny their humanity. Stigma surrounding HIV infection breeds a fear that discourages people from learning or disclosing their HIV-positive status. It also compels many people to delay seeking crucial treatments. The disease derives its rampant proliferation from this fear.
We must also help our communities discard lingering bigotry against many of those who are most vulnerable to HIV. Our efforts to prevent the spread of AIDS are made more difficult by the persistence of prejudice toward gay people. Homophobia is as morally wrong and unacceptable as racism, and we must stamp it out. Our efforts have also been complicated by the desire to judge and ostracize injection drug users and our incarcerated brothers and sisters rather than offer them the treatment and support they need. Fear and hatred spreads shame and guilt where there should be compassion and healing. Every person is a child of God, and every human being is entitled to full human rights.
In doing these things, we can join together in a nationwide teach-in on AIDS. We can insure that homophobia, ignorance, and low self-esteem no longer feed the disease’s spread. Let us resolve that this new openness and dialogue will help us to heal people with AIDS and to build the beloved community where all people can live together in health and harmony. It is with this spirit that we shall overcome.