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Now, 137 years after Lincoln delivered those words to Congress, we celebrate Black History Month, taking time to honor those who came before us and those of current time who have joined in the struggle for their community, and for our nation. We know that the dream of an America free from prejudice and racial divide is still far from becoming a reality, that too many among us still want for food, housing, and healthcare.
"Does anyone here doubt that the sleepy response of government and some community leaders to this epidemic would have been radically different if those affected were more from Main Street than Castro Street, more from Uptown than Downtown?"
In so many ways, the AIDS epidemic has shined a harsh spotlight on these very issues, exposing tremendous disparities in access to quality healthcare and affordable housing, and in freedom from discrimination and prejudice. Does anyone here doubt that the sleepy response of government and some community leaders to this epidemic would have been radically different if those affected were more from Main Street than Castro Street, more from Uptown than Downtown? We all know that AIDS is an equal opportunity virus, but too many were willing to dismiss its devastation as just another affliction of the marginalized.
AIDS may well be the perfect metaphor for so much of what ails this country, and our ability to bring an end to AIDS is consistently confounded by our inability to heal the underlying malignancies of racism, sexism, and homophobia.
But this terrible epidemic has also been an extraordinarily poignant reminder of what can be accomplished through struggle, and through partnership. Most of us can still remember back to the days when there was little hope, when ignorance and indifference were the rule and not the exception, when treatments were desperate and unproved, and when only a bold few dared to respond.
We have come a long way on this journey called AIDS, building new bridges across old boundaries and joining hands in protest. Who would ever have predicted that we'd have red ribbons and Malcolm X on U.S. postage stamps? My friends, it is a brave new world!
Just a few months ago, a small group of African American community activists led what is now fondly referred to as "the Atlanta insurrection," choosing to lead rather than follow. They began an effort that was soon joined by the Congressional Black Caucus, scores of other community and political leaders, and many of us struggling from the inside. Older voices got louder and new voices joined in, and soon there was this tremendous chorus of energy sweeping this city. In the waning hours of the budget process, long after any new ideas were being entertained, this unstoppable force enabled the CBC to secure over $100 million in new AIDS funding.
This past October, the President, Secretary Shalala, Surgeon General Satcher, and I joined Representatives Maxine Waters and Louis Stokes--and several of you here today--in announcing a new effort to address HIV and AIDS in the African American and other minority communities. This initiative is founded on both the new funding and the new energy, with Secretary Shalala making additional dollars available to bring the total effort to $156 million.
"Solidarity will be critical to our success;
This is a tremendously exciting initiative, both because it will help build the capacity of the community to identify and respond to its own needs and because it may well serve as a catalyst for ensuring that the remaining billions of dollars in funding for AIDS-related care and prevention are more effectively used. It has the potential, the potential, to galvanize a broad-based community response, and to make participation in the fight against AIDS a moral imperative for all America--and not just a relatively few brave warriors.
I want you to know that I am truly committed to doing everything within my power to turn that potential into reality by helping to feed the momentum that has brought us this far.
And there are other obstacles in our way. Besides the poisons of prejudice--of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, and ageism--we must be ever mindful of the historical gulf between the African American community and the healthcare system. President Clinton has regretfully acknowledged the grave injustice of Tuskegee, with the hope that we can heal that wound and the persistent mistrust of the medical system that keeps too many from accessing the care they need.
We must also be vigilant against the growing misperception that AIDS is no longer a lethal threat, a misperception that comes more easily to a nation weary from an eighteen year struggle. When magazines run cover stories on the miraculous cure of Magic Johnson from AIDS instead of celebrating his successful treatment, we must stand up and we must speak out.
When the rhetoric of politicians drowns out the reasoned arguments of public health experts, we must stand up and we must speak out.
When the sanctimonious seek to withhold prevention information that can save our children's lives, we must stand up and we must speak out.
And when our leaders turn their backs on the epidemic beyond our borders, we must stand up and we must speak out.
For we have an obligation to speak out for those who cannot, to raise our voices on behalf of those who depend on us for action, but whose distance makes them too easy to forget. We must remember that the epidemic here in the United States is only a small wave in the torrent of the global pandemic sweeping across this globe.
I want to share with you a few images from a trip that I just took to southern Africa to prepare for a larger fact-finding mission this spring commissioned by the President. Our primary focus was on AIDS orphans, children who have lost one or both of their parents to this disease. The U. S. Agency for International Development has estimated that by the end of the next decade, more than 40 million children will be orphaned by AIDS--40 million. And 95% of those will be in sub-Saharan Africa.
"We saw whole villages and towns with the young adult generation virtually wiped out by AIDS, with the children and the old trying the best they can to simply continue to survive. These are the faces of children and families living in a world with AIDS."
During this trip, we met a 70 year old grandmother who had buried 10 of her 11 children and is now caring for 35 of her grandchildren. Each day, she walks several miles to gather fresh water, carrying it back to her small, crowded hut. Then she starts the work of tending to the pigs, the chickens, and the produce in her small garden to help pay for food, shelter, and school fees for her 35 grandchildren.
And she has also taken the time to join an organization called "United Women's Effort to Save Orphans," linking in solidarity with thousands of women facing the same great struggles.
We also visited households where orphaned children with no where else to turn were raising each other. We met 15 year olds playing mother and father to their siblings, unable now to plan for their own futures as they seek to care for those children coming up behind them. We saw whole villages and towns with the young adult generation virtually wiped out by AIDS, with the children and the old trying the best they can to simply continue to survive. These are the faces of children and families living in a world with AIDS. And their spirit, their determination, and their resilience leads us on.
Remember the charge of Reverend King:
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."
Can there be any greater injustice than to have a preventable, treatable disease and to be denied access to the information and treatments that we know will save lives? We must all stand up and speak out for the needs of those affected by AIDS in Africa, Asia, and Latin America who have no voice here.
Together, as partners--doctors, nurses, service providers, prevention educators, advocates, clergy--and sometimes even government officials--together as partners we have made tremendous progress here in our fight to end AIDS.
All of us who have worked so hard to save lives should feel proud of our accomplishments, and mindful of the many colleagues we have lost along the way. Yet we must also be mindful of the work left to be done here and across the globe.
I join the President and the Vice President in thanking you for your tremendous efforts, and in urging you to continue your efforts to care for those living with HIV and AIDS, and to help stop the spread of this terrible disease. I also want to ask that you continue to push us to do what is right, to advocate for your needs and of those for whom you care, and to give voice to the voiceless.
Let me close with the words of Frederick Douglas, the other inspiration for Black History Month:
Let us commit together to not squander the loss of the nearly 400,000 Americans and 14 million others across the world we have lost to AIDS, but instead build from this tragedy a foundation for hope, a legacy of compassion, and a partnership forged by our struggle together. I wish you God's speed in your work. Thank you.
President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore