On October 11, 1987, the second National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights drew approximately five hundred thousand people. The first display of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was unfolded at dawn with 1,920 individual panels, just a small fraction of the more than twenty thousand Americans who had already lost their lives to AIDS. It took hundreds of volunteers, who came from all over the country to work with the core group of Mike Smith, Gert, Jack, Debra Resnik, Scott Lago, Leslie Ewinga, Rebecca LePere, and the many others who had walked away from careers and families to create the Quilt. Donald Montwell and Jim Maness flew in from Maui. Jim was near death and could no longer walk. They had worked with Whoopi Goldberg early in her career at the Valencia Rose. Before we opened the Quilt to the crowd, Whoopi, Jim, Donald, Mike Smith, and I pushed Jim in his chair to the center of the Quilt. Around us, tens of thousands waited in silence in the cold morning air. Whoopi was wearing one of her tour coats, and she wrapped it around Jim’s skinny shoulders. As we wheeled him back, Donald began to give the coat back to Whoopi, but Jim clutched at it, grinned up at me, and said, “I’m going to be buried in this.” I believe he was.
Later, Mike Smith and I stood on a cherry picker 20 feet above the ground and watched as hundreds of thousands of people walked the canvas walkway grid that contained the squares of quilt panels. Only the reading of the names and the sound of people weeping broke the silence around us. We were exhausted and overwhelmed by the beauty of the Quilt and the horror it represented. It was my 33rd birthday.
On the flight home a few days later out of National Airport, the jet flew over the Mall. I looked down from my window and saw that the Park Service bureaucrats had been right. Despite Representative Nancy Pelosi’s assurances, the canvas walkways of the Quilt had left behind a haunting afterimage of the grid on the lawn within which the Quilt had been unfolded.
When We Rise: My Life in the Movement is currently available from Hachette Books.