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What MLK and the Civil Rights Movement Mean to HIV in the South

By Stephen Lucin

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped out onto the balcony of room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, on April 4, 1968, he was unaware that a gunman would open fire on him, rendering an end to his peaceful civil disobedience Civil Rights movement that carried its way throughout the Southern United States. Because of his actions, and in the many years following his assassination, so much change occurred in terms of race relations and equality. However, nearly a half century later, a new issue would arise to disproportionately affect the Southern U.S. and the African-American community: HIV and AIDS.

Today, the states that compose the Southern portion of the U.S. continue to maintain top billing for rises in HIV infection rates, especially within African-American populations of women and gay and bisexual men. In the 2013 HIV Surveillance Report put out by the Centers for Disease Control, Louisiana ranks number two and number three for its two major metropolises, New Orleans and Baton Rouge, respectively, in a list of the top 25 cities affected by HIV infection. Jackson, MS ranks number four, Memphis, TN comes in at number seven, Atlanta, GA at number eight, Birmingham, AL at number 17, and a spattering of mostly Southern cities among other rankings.

According to CDC reports, and information compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Regionally, the South accounts for the majority of Blacks newly diagnosed with HIV (61 percent in 2011) and Blacks living with an HIV diagnosis at the end of 2010 (55 percent).”

Through these statistics, the correlation between the Civil Rights Movement and the HIV/AIDS epidemic may not be so obvious; for it is not yet fully existent. The HIV positive community in the South will soon need courageous leaders to loudly stand up and fight the political, social and religious forces that keep stigma alive. And the HIV negative community will have to take a stand alongside its HIV positive brethren to help fight the growing number of HIV infection rates that result because of racism, homophobia and misguided religious zealotry.

“I’d hate to say it but it’s religion,” said Danette Brown, MSW/Program Director of Ryan White Services in Baton Rouge, LA. She was referring to the main cause of stigma within the black community as related to HIV and gay men in her home state. She went on to explain that while the church and religion do a lot of good in other social areas, they do a lot of harm by making people feel condemned because of their sexual orientation or because of their HIV status.

In fact, religion has been named as one of the top reasons for the perpetuation of stigma, fear and homophobia by many of the AIDS Service Organizations (ASOs) throughout the South. From Baton Rouge to New Orleans to Jackson to Memphis, several ASOs list religion as a top tier factor to HIV infection, among racism and homophobia. Many people who work in the HIV/AIDS field within the South are fully aware of the obstacles faced in reaching young people to take care of themselves before or even after a positive HIV diagnosis. But these obstacles are reinforced by a greater social stigma that comes into play before HIV is even a variable.

“As a young black man, you’re told that you’re not going to make it past the age of thirty,” explained Joseph Mitchell, Jr., Peer Mentor at Friends For Life, and ASO in Memphis, TN. He went on to explain that as a young, gay, black man, the church tells you that you’re an abomination your whole life; that you’re going to catch HIV if you’re a gay man, and that you deserve it as punishment for your behavior. In essence, a young black man, regardless of his sexual orientation or HIV status, who is living in the South, does not expect “to make it.”

Therefore, the correlation of the need for the Civil Rights Movement and the need for an HIV and AIDS movement to combat the stigma that is backed by the racist, homophobic and religious zealotry that occurs in the South is necessary and supported by fact. And while it can fully be understood and studied, it is oftentimes simply not discussed because, for some reason, it is tolerated that an entire population of people is allowed to be socially outcast.

“We like leaders here in the South,” said Mitchell.

But because of the perception of HIV, it has been difficult to find leaders in the South who will stand up against stigma and who will fight for people of all backgrounds instead of condemning them or making them feel like an abomination.

“Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly,” penned Dr. King in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to local pastors who accused him of being an outsider and unwelcome in the backyard of the South. “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”

Kim Daugherty, Executive Director of Friends For Life, explained that poverty plays a large role in this disparity. She said that politics are what removed Medicaid funding from most Southern states and that this region of the U.S. is often overlooked by people and organizations who can do the most to help financially support and sustain their work. Funding is so tight that she said, “Right now I’m worried about saving money on my electric bill." 

Poor education, poverty, poor or non-existent sex education and protection courses, social and racial stigmas and overly-entitled opinions of “us” vs. “them” ideologies backed by religious bigotry are the roots of the HIV epidemic in the South. In order to effect change, it is clear that people must become outraged by the political, social and religious acceptance of bigotry against HIV positive individuals and the disease itself just as they had become outraged about segregation and racism.

Race is still an issue, and it comes into play with the disparity of HIV infection rates in the Southern U.S. Most ASOs are eager to point out the CDC figures, both recent and past, that show the most disproportionate numbers of young African-American or black men who have sex with men (MSM) who are among the highest at-risk to contract HIV. There are internal and external factors of race that are considered in these assessments, including the fact that most Southern states also have the most disproportionate rates of poverty, as earlier explained by Kim Daugherty of Friends For Life.

The South faces many challenges along the road of change. But without these challenges, many more people will be the victims of societies that do not accept the importance of awareness of education about HIV. It will take leaders within and outside of the community to create this outrage. And it will take the very political, social and religious offenders to back down from their stigmatic pulpits in order to make education about and treatment for HIV available to everyone, regardless of race, religion, socio-economic status or sexual orientation.

In the words of Dr. King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”