“We’ve Got to Give Ourselves to this Struggle until the End.”

By Shanell McGoy October 16, 2017

“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
I’ve Been to the Mountaintop
Memphis, TN
April 3, 1968

On Wednesday, April 4, 2018 at 6:01 pm, many will commemorate 50 years since the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Lorraine Motel balcony of room 306 in Memphis, Tennessee. Fifty years since Dr. King’s assassination. Fifty years.

Dr. King traveled to Memphis in the spring of 1968 to support sanitation workers who were striking for better working conditions and fair wages. The struggle for safe work conditions and economic and social justice in Memphis was fueled by the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, two Memphis sanitation workers. Echol Cole and Robert Walker, we speak your names. Early in 1968, Cole and Walker were killed by a faulty garbage truck, precipitating months-long strikes among Memphis sanitation workers and their supporters. The iconic “I Am a Man” signs became a symbol of the sanitation strikes. Fifty years later, as much as things have changed things have also remained the same. The struggle for justice continues, today.

As NASTAD Board Chair, I had the distinct honor and privilege to host the NASTAD staff and 21 of my 23 colleagues from state and local jurisdiction in Memphis, TN for the NASTAD Board of Directors Meeting, October 10 – 12, 2017. Two NASTAD Board members—from California and the District of Columbia—were unable to participate in state and city sponsored travel because of anti-LGBT policies on the books in Tennessee.

Some have described Memphis, Tennessee as “Ground Zero” for our work to end the epidemics. Memphis is situated in the Southern United States, where 52% of new HIV diagnoses and 53% of new AIDS diagnoses were identified in 2015. Memphis ranked 8th among diagnoses of HIV infection in U.S. metropolitan statistical areas in 2015. There is no place more fitting than Memphis to convene state and local public officials working to end the epidemics of HIV and hepatitis. The Board meeting consisted of an orientation for both new and tenured members, strategic visioning sessions, and highlights of Tennessee’s efforts to end the epidemics.

The meeting was reminiscent of convenings held at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee. “A place where leaders, networks… come together to interact, build friendships, craft joint strategy, and develop the tools and mechanisms… for social and economic justice.” A place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Ralph David Abernathy, and John Lewis convened. A place where I, as a Spelman College undergraduate and Bonner Scholar, joined Washington and Lee University and Berea College students to prepare for a summer service learning experience addressing anti-poverty work, some twenty years ago.

One of my proudest moments was at the National Civil Rights Museum when partners across Tennessee shared how our state unites to end the epidemics at same place where Dr. King was assassinated. We were “edu-tained” by T.K. Hampton and Crew’s #Ysl2z You Shall LHIV 2: Zero performance. Syringe service access policies and opportunities to modernize HIV and hepatitis policies in Tennessee were discussed. The use of surveillance data to inform HIV and hepatitis care and treatment was presented. We heard from partners about innovative prevention approaches using PrEP to prevent new HIV infections among the most vulnerable populations. We learned how Ryan White Part A and B treatment and wrap around services are paramount in assisting HIV positive individuals live healthy, long lives. What we learned is that Tennessee is not much different than Massachusetts and Memphis not much different than New York City in our work to end the epidemics.

At the end of our time at the National Civil Rights Museum, my colleagues and I stood for a picture in front of the “I Am a Man” mural. The mural represents the need for dignity and compassion. I Am a Woman. I Am a Transgender Person. I Am a Person Living With HIV. I Am a Person Living with Hepatitis. I Am a Person Who Injects Drugs. I Am a Person Who is Undetectable. I Am a Person Taking PrEP. It was at that moment that I was reminded of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. words fifty years ago when he gave the prophetic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” speech,

“we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”

As we approach the end of the epidemic in some populations we must see our work through until there are ZERO new HIV infections among ALL of us. We have the tools to the end the epidemics and we must not “stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”