MAXWELL:  Facing HIV, AIDS in the black community

7/28/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



I am not a groupie, but I acknowledge from the outset that the appearance of the Rev. Al Sharpton, New York’s civil rights wild man, was my reason for attending the South Florida HIV/AIDS Town Hall Meeting on Saturday at the James L. Knight Center in Liberty City.

After reading dozens of testimonials by African-Americans with HIV or AIDS, on display in the lobby, I realized that the purpose of Sharpton’s visit was serious and that his celebrity would bring needed attention to a disease that is killing us off as nothing else has done in modern times.

About 800 HIV activists, religious, community and health leaders, gathered to hear speakers plead for more church leadership, more outreach aimed at minorities, more acceptance of those infected with the disease and more HIV research.

By most measures, the conference was successful because _ beyond distributing useful information _ it attempted to persuade blacks to rely more on themselves in halting the spread of the disease.

Most of the participants were from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, the three counties with the state’s highest rates of HIV and AIDS cases. As evidence of the meeting’s broad significance, many politicians, including state Sen. Kendrick Meek, a black Democrat who represents Liberty City, attended and gave more than lip service.

Meek, for example, announced his campaign to bring $350,000 to Liberty City this year. Much of the money will pay health workers in the targeted area to encourage “street” people to be tested for HIV, to distribute information about preventing the disease and, of course, to distribute free condoms.

Gov. Jeb Bush also supports the goals of the town hall meeting. Bush, Dr. Robert Brooks, the secretary of Florida’s Department of Health, and Tom Liberti, the state’s AIDS czar, have promised to seek ways to slow the spread of the virus in black areas.

For his part, Sharpton said if prevention efforts are to work, the black community at large must stop stigmatizing people infected with the virus, and families must stop rejecting their infected relatives.

“It’s bad enough to go through pain, but it’s worse to go through pain isolated and marginalized in your own community, in your own neighborhood, in your own house and in your own church,” Sharpton said. “So they would rather endure the pain under false pretenses than die two deaths, and that’s a sad commentary on us.”

In addition to urging blacks to help find their own solutions to the epidemic, the meeting was remarkable because it addressed an area that most other such events and programs ignore: the relationship between HIV and AIDS in the state’s prisons and free society. The frightening reality is that the virus is spreading exponentially among black males behind bars, and when these men are released, many spread the disease to unsuspecting victims in the free world.

The black church, a minister from Belle Glade said, continues to be the most stubborn sector to join the fight against the disease. Why? Because too many church leaders oppose free distribution of condoms and free needle exchange programs. And even more of them turn their backs on homosexuals.

Using national and local statistics, several speakers demonstrated the urgency of halting the epidemic: Nationally, although African-Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for nearly 50 percent of AIDS cases. By 2005, that figure is expected to rise to 60 percent. In Palm Beach County, blacks represent 61 percent of all AIDS cases. Of the county’s 37 children infected with the virus in January, 36 were black. In Miami-Dade, blacks account for 49 percent of all AIDS cases, mostly in Liberty City and Overtown.

“You can’t continue to lose three (black) people every hour and continue to exist,” said the Rev. George McRae, pastor of Miami’s Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church, citing federal statistics on the virus’ decimation of African-Americans nationwide.

Along with getting the churches to do more and persuading average blacks to change their lifestyles, the speakers promised to ask government agencies to provide more funds and expertise to help combat the disease.

Clearly, these agencies could do more, a lot more, but they need organized prodding.

Fortunately, the governor is paying attention. He seems to be sincere. But he can bring his influence to bear only if the black community works with him.

The South Florida Town Hall Meeting, with Sharpton as featured speaker, was a good beginning. Sharpton has scheduled 11 more such meetings in other cities around the country.