Cleve Jones, long-time gay rights activist, had the idea for the AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1985 and in Nadine C. Licostie’s new film, “The Last One,” he lovingly shows a quilt he had as a child, made by his great-grandmother from his great-grandfather’s pajamas. “At an early age, to me, a quilt embodied family love and not throwing anything away.”
In San Francisco in June of 1987, Jones organized the NAMES Project Foundation with Mike Smith and other activists. Says Jones in the film, “If we were a community, now was the time to show it.” Enraged by the mounting death toll and with a profound need to memorialize those lost lives and to force the homophobic Reagan administration to acknowledge the crisis and fund treatment research, the Quilt’s founders staged its inaugural display on October 11, 1987, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. There were 1,920 panels, the beginning of a public art work of great beauty and deep emotion, and with the reading of the names, as Smith says, the Quilt “defines a sacred space.”
The Quilt has expanded to approximately 48,000 panels and “The Last One” details its evolution. Recognizing that the South is seeing a disproportionate share of the 50,000+ new cases of AIDS diagnosed each year in the United States, the Foundation moved from San Francisco to Atlanta in 2002.
Patricia Nalls, a long-time AIDS survivor, who lost both her husband and a very young daughter to AIDS, began a support group for other HIV+ women, which grew into the Women’s Collective in Washington, D.C. “Most of the women we serve are single, head-of-household and African-American. ” Echoing Jones, “the Quilt was created to be a weapon in the war not only against a disease but the cruelty and bigotry the disease exposed,” Nalls, a deeply compassionate woman, adds that “the stigma can be as bad as the disease.”
In July 2012, the Quilt returned to the National Mall as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and a panel delivered anonymously in 1987, which simply says, “The Last One,” was held up at the ceremony, as a future without AIDS could finally be imagined.
“The Last One” is available on iTunes, beginning today, December 1, World AIDS Day.
On the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend in 1988, I traveled with my good friend (and much-admired colleague), writer Jeff Weinstein, to document the unfolding and display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta for a Village Voice cover story. In New York a week earlier we had visited the very busy quilt-making workshop at the (then-named) Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.
The Voice has done an even less than haphazard job of digitizing its archive but Jeff’s remarkable piece, worth searching out, is included in a fascinating book, “Art in the Public Interest,” edited by Arlene Raven, Ann Arbor UNI Research Press, 1989.
During the early years of the pandemic, I winced if my phone rang around 4:00 pm on a Friday. I didn’t need still-to-be-invented caller ID to know it was the Voice’s photo department, phoning to ask if I had a portrait to accompany an obit for yet another essential person, lost to AIDS.