September 26, 2008
WALKIN' AGAINST AIDS
The Mississippi walkers take the final leg
178 miles. 10 days. 15 Mississippians (more or less).
After a moving kick-off in Jackson two weeks ago, marchers with the 178-mile Walk Against AIDS—part of the Stand Against AIDS—arrived in Oxford, Mississippi Monday safe and sound. Despite the many obstacles they confronted along the way, including accidentally walking an extra six miles, the marchers were overwhelmed with the support for their mission from Mississippians along the way: Raise awareness about the need for a National AIDS Strategy from the next U.S. president.
"The harder the walk got, the stronger the message got," said Robin Webb, a Campaign to End AIDS Mississippi co-founder who participated in the Walk.
The Walk Against AIDS was one of nine "caravans" of AIDS activists from all over the country participating in the Stand Against AIDS. Converging in Oxford, Mississippi for the first 2008 presidential debate today, the Stand Against AIDS activists are demanding that Obama and McCain commit to taking meaningful steps toward creating a national AIDS Strategy within the first 100 days of taking the Oval Office.
The on-foot journey, inspired by James Meredith's legendary voting rights trek from Memphis to Jackson, wasn't easy. The group—all Mississippi residents except for Housing Works President and CEO Charles King and his partner Jobanny Ramirez—slept on living room floors, in church basements and even spent two nights in a barn. (You can relive some of the fun at the Stand Against AIDS blog.)
"Keep on busy walking ’gainst AIDS, keep on busy talkin' bout talking about AIDS. Ain't got time to die," the group sang in a continuous loop throughout Mississippi. The lyrics were written by Webb.
James Bender, the self-described "Grandpa" of the marchers at 48, has been positive for 22 years, and his doctor told him not to walk because of his illnesses. They include AIDS, neuropathy, diabetes and glaucoma. "I had something to prove," he said.
As the walkers marched from Jackson to Oxford they received incredible support from passersby. One driver threw a wad of money out his car window. Another threw out food from Wendy's. A Wal-Mart manager called her entire staff to the front of the store and asked them to give the group money or a prayer. The group left with $39 and change. Everywhere they went they received honks, cheers and words of support. "Y'all are so cool! End AIDS!" yelled a blonde college-aged woman with a southern accent in Oxford, as the group was finishing up the last leg.
Valencia Robinson, the group's intrepid grassroots organizer and a Mississippi native, said that she was surprised and overwhelmed by the show of support and love the group received. "I thought Mississippians would be offended by HIV/AIDS and sexuality, but we received nothing but support," Robinson said.
The largest show of support from a local came from Zachariah Moore. Moore, 21, met the caravan in Greenwood, 116 miles north of Jackson. He is about to start basic training for the National Guard. When he saw the Stand Against AIDS marchers talk to college students in Yazoo City, he spontaneously decided to join. "I was going to go to the recruiting station to work out. I figured this is better exercise," said Moore. At the opening press conference for the Stand Against AIDS, Moore, who had never before been involved in AIDS advocacy, told the crowd. "We must end AIDS now!"