Activists Reflect on HIV and Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy
By Savas Abadsidis
Would Martin Luther King, Jr. Have Supported HIV-Positive People? (Click to Read More)
The renowned civil rights leader died in 1968, long before we were aware of HIV — and its impact on the African-American community — and long before HIV stigma threatened the rights of those living with the virus. But, if King were alive today, would he join HIV activists in their efforts? We asked advocates to weigh in on King's legacy and HIV.
Ashton P. Woods: King Gave us a Template for Change
I honestly cannot say that I know exactly what Dr. King would say or do when it comes to HIV. What I do know is that he left a legacy; a template for peaceful, nonviolent, and effective disruption to meet our goals. Given that HIV heavily affects the Black community at large —which has myriad detrimental effects — we have work to do, and that starts with removing the stigma and miseducation around HIV. Some will say that HIV is not a Black issue, but it is an issue within the Black community, and we as a Black collective have overlooked the need for proper sexual education. Not only are we lacking said education, but organizations funded by the government — and the government itself — are not providing the funding or tools to disrupt this cycle of stigma and miseducation in my community. Dr. King sacrificed his time and risked his life for the basic freedoms extended to Americans. Before his assassination, he also spoke about socioeconomic injustice, which included the lack of available healthcare in the Black community. We have the template, we have a way to improve life and eradicate HIV.
Ashton P. Woods is unapologetically Black, same gender loving, HIV positive, and atheist. The New Orleans native founded one of the city's first high school gay/straight alliances. He knows what being marginalized looks and feels like, which informs his philosophy that Black liberation and justice must be intersectional. He's active in the Black Lives Matter, racial justice, feminist, and LGBTQ rights movements.
Emil Wilbekin: King's Community Engagement Could Have Taken on HIV
The Civil Rights Movement was about mobilizing the community to make a difference through nonviolence. I believe that if the HIV pandemic existed at that time, the same ideology of community engagement could have been activated with testing, education, and activism.
Emil Wilbekin is a journalist, pop culture expert, content curator, LGBT activist, and founder of World Of Wilbekin and Native Son awards, which highlight the role of Black men in the LGBT community. He's the former editor-in-chief of VIBE and GIANT magazine, former managing editor of Essence.com and former editor-at-large at Essence magazine. Wilbekin has contributed to The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Associated Press, OUT and has appeared on CNN, VH-1, The Today Show, PBS, BBC, and NPR.
Dena Gray Hughes: King Fought for Care for All
As we move into a season prepared to dismantle and disrupt the incoming administration, we have to take a minute and make a conscience effort to be mindful of the impact of change. Martin Luther King Jr. made it clear his belief on the provision of care for all. HIV and its devastation has undergone tremendous change over the past 30 years, but the epidemic is not over. People, due to lack of resources and and education, continue to struggle with healthcare costs and getting the necessary support to manage chronic illnesses.
Martin Luther King said, “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”
We must continue our fight for care for all. We cannot afford to let dissection and disconnection take away the gains we have made. We see now, that poverty and lack of access affects Blacks and Whites, gay and straight, women and men. In today's new society, we can't leave one man down. We must fight for affordable treatment, appropriate housing, and universal healthcare for all. And we must look through the lens of our fellow citizens to ensure that no life is discarded, even those that we don't agree with.
Let's keep fighting people, together.
Dena Gray Hughes owns Concept 2 Resource, a consulting firm, and currently serves as interim executive director for Triangle Area Network in Beaumont, Texas.
Khafre Abif: King Understood Intersectionality
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be on the front line of the continued push for our collective community on the issues of human rights, social justice, and HIV. His vision for racial and economic justice, education, opportunity, and even housing provides us with his knowledge of intersectionality as key to the plight of human progress. I understand, as Dr. King did, that every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle by the tireless exertions and passionate concerns of dedicated people. He understood urban public housing [could] produce the conditions of urban despair — and become the incubator of epidemics, including HIV.
Khafre Kujichagulia Abif, is an Atlanta-based community organizer for the Southern AIDS Coalition. The bisexual activist is also a writer, editor, blogger, and artist who has been thriving with HIV for 28 years.
King Avriel: MLK Would Advocate for the Rights of Those Living with HIV
King's thoughts and comments around HIV and the stigmatization that HIV-positive members of our community face would undoubtedly be in alignment with his overarching message of love and unity despite differences. That being said, I think what many forget about King was his ardent commitment to fighting social injustice; he believed in nonviolent resistance, but that did not make him any less militant or any less tolerant of hate than his counterparts that advocated for violent resistance. I definitely believe that King would advocate for the rights, freedoms, and inclusion of HIV-positive members of all marginalized communities in the same way he famously advocated for the liberation of Black people.
King Avriel aka Avriel Epps, is a recording artist, educator, and entrepreneur with a focus on the intersection of digital media and educational equity. Avriel’s work has garnered her an invitation from the U.S. Department of Education to present her research in front of Congress as well as features in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Vogue magazine. Avriel is the co-founder of an educational startup, SeekU, which aims to close the higher education attainment gap by providing personalized and holistic college admissions counseling for all students.
Mark S. King: MLK Judged People on the Content of Their Character
The legacy of MLK is his insistence that people be judged not by immutable characteristics like the color of their skin, "but by the content of their character." His famous words ring true for me as an HIV-positive gay man. There's no doubt in my mind that Reverend King would extend his philosophy to people living with HIV, who face everything from isolating social stigma to unfair criminal prosecution.
Mark S. King is an award-winning blogger and activist who has written about life with HIV since testing positive in 1985. You can find his work at MyFabulousDisease.
Phil Knott: King Would Have Accepted LGBT and HIV-Positive People
When I think about Dr. King, his message and these issues, the first thing that occurs to me is the William Butler Yeats poem: "Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths, Enwrought with golden and silver light, The blue and the dim and the dark cloths, Of night and light and the half-light, I would spread the cloths under your feet, But I, being poor, have only my dreams, I have spread my dreams under your feet, Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."
Dr. King would have accepted people with HIV and who are LGBT and loved them unconditionally: the unwanted, the unloved and the invisible — the unacceptance of what's become acceptable. He would have spoken on behalf of these [queer] kids kicked out of a stable environment—their own homes—because of ignorance and fearful parents. And he would have admonished the parents afraid of what people may think about them having a gay or transgendered child.
British born fashion photographer Phil Knott draws inspiration from everyone he meets and sees. He’s photographed for Complex, Spin, XXL, Interview and Tally Ho! magazines. He’s also done fashion campaigns for Stussy and Zoo York and numerous album covers.
Sampson McCormick: King Sought Justice for All — Including Black, Queer, Trans, HIV+
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once famously quoted "None of us are free, until all of us are free." I've often reflected on that idea in the quest for justice for all people. I think that we try to compartmentalize what liberation looks like, even limit it to certain groups of people that seem to win portions of equality; which isn't full equality or liberation, or freedom at all for that matter. I think that if Dr. King were still with us, in addition to continuing to lead the charge in the quest for love and liberation, he'd encourage all of us who've had to demand our rights — Black, queer, gay, women, transgender, disabled, and immigrants — to remember to keep reaching back and lifting those up around us. One major social justice issue that we seem to collectively overlook, is helping to eradicate the stigmas and injustices that surround HIV/AIDS. It's not a Black issue, or a queer issue, but an issue that affects and effects us all, globally. It can and will only get better with education, funding for more studies, effective community outreach programs, and most of all, love. We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers.
Minister LaKisha N. Williams: King Said What Affects One Affects All
Dr. King was a drum major for justice who was unapologetically Christian, unashamedly Black, and undeniably servant leader of the world house. His life and legacy are a remarkable witness to the power of love. That love that is “patient and kind,” that “acts justly, is merciful, and walks humbly with God.” That love that says, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” The love that Jesus demonstrated when he embraced those on the margins, acted up in the face of wrong, touched the untouchable, healed the incurable, defied the powers that be, and even forgave his enemies. That love made King a transformed nonconformist and an advocate of radical political action. The love that recognizes that the destructive pandemic of HIV knows no boundaries and must be stopped. It is that love that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and ultimately, always perseveres” through it all. I believe that Dr. King would encourage our commitment to a future free of HIV and urge us to fight like hell as citizens of the global village — because that’s what love does.
Minister LaKisha N. Williams is the youth and young adult minister of the Antioch Baptist Church in Harlem where the Reverend Shon T. Adkins is senior pastor. She is also the youth minister for Women of Virtue, Honor and Purpose Ministries. She is a policy associate at Goddard Riverside Community Center's Options Center and project manager of #DegreesNYC, a collective action effort that focuses on postsecondary equity.