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What Would MLK Do?

By Phill Wilson

January 12, 2011

What Would MLK Do?

As the world celebrates the 82nd birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., -- and prepares to mark the 30th anniversary of the first case of HIV/AIDS diagnosed in the United States -- I'm asking myself the same question I ask myself this time every year: When it comes to HIV/AIDS, what would Martin do?

What would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., think about the HIV/AIDS pandemic in 2010? What would he be doing about the epidemic and what would he expect us to be doing?

Martin would tell us that HIV/AIDS is a social justice issue. He would demand people of good will -- people who believe in social justice -- to exercise individual and collective responsibility for ending the epidemic.

How can we build a just society when millions of us are vulnerable to a deadly disease that is preventable, diagnosable and often treatable? How can our world be just when people continue to be discriminated against because of their color, gender, sexual orientation and/or HIV status.

Who among us is willing to be the HIV/AIDS drum major for justice?

HIV/AIDS challenges us to create a society that respects everyone's humanity and does not discriminate, but instead that treats each person equally, fairly and justly -- ideas that Dr. King trumpeted.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic forces us to ask ourselves, "What issues are important to a contemporary civil rights movement. Is there a place for people living with HIV/AIDS in Dr. King's "Beloved Community?" Dr. King wrote, " All life is interrelated. The agony of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother's keeper because we are our brother's brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly."

Because of this he would have us consider questions like:

"We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality," Dr. King said. Oppression is of a whole cloth. The threads are woven throughout. You cannot cut out the parts of the cloth that offend you and wrap yourself in the remaining garment and call yourself just. Justice cannot be "just us" no matter how you define "us." State AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP) waiting lists are a threat to the health of everyone in the state whether you are HIV-positive or not.

"Let us be dissatisfied until rat-infested, vermin-filled slums will be a thing of a dark past and every family will have a decent sanitary house in which to live. Let us be dissatisfied until the empty stomachs of Mississippi are filled…. Let us be dissatisfied until our brothers of the Third World of Asia, Africa and Latin America be lifted from the long night of poverty, illiteracy and disease," he said.

Throughout this year in this column, we are going to look at some important social justice issues -- healthcare reform, implementation of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, the ADAP crisis, and how federal deficit reduction and budget cutting is applied in a just manner that ensures that poor people and people of color aren't the only ones feeling the pain.

We are also going to examine the issue of individual and collective responsibility. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "everyone can be great because everyone can serve." Martin would call on us to be greater than AIDS by serving at the forefront of efforts to end the epidemic. Martin would call for expanded HIV testing. He would call for effective prevention strategies that resonate with our culture. He would demand improved access to care and treatment for the most vulnerable among us. We can do the same.

Most importantly, Martin would challenge each of us to take individual responsibility in our country, in our community, in our home and the place that matters more than any other: our bedroom. At some point we all must be brutally honest and self-reflective: The only people physically present when we engage in a sexual encounter are our selves and our partner. At that moment, no one else has the ability or responsibility to protect us but us. In the end, the most effective way to safeguard our communities from HIV is for each of us to protect ourselves and our partners. Each of us carries this obligation.

So this week I challenge each of us to ask ourselves WWMLKD? And then do it.

Phill Wilson is the President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, the only National HIV/AIDS think tank in the United States focused exclusively on Black people. He can be reached at or follow him on Twitter @iamphillwilson.

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