Also see the National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day message from the National Association of People With AIDS. And check out our events page.

One Sunday last September at a mostly black church in Des Moines, Iowa, Reverend Keith Ratliff Sr. mentioned to his congregation that he had taken an HIV test that week at a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Ratliff discussed the importance of knowing your HIV status and getting care early if you test positive, and then ushered parishioners to the basement to get 20-minute oral swab HIV tests of their own.  

Follow-the-leader-style HIV testing has become the norm at NAACP events—and beyond—ever since NAACP Chairman Julian Bond attended the Toronto launch last August of a new think tank aimed at fostering black American leadership on HIV. “[AIDS] has invaded our house, and our leaders must accept ownership and fight it with everything we have,” said Bond, who had gotten tested in public at the NAACP’s Washington, DC annual convention and inspired hundreds of others into testing lines there.

It turns out the NAACP’s grassroots testing campaign is just one of many successes that are easily traceable to that August powwow, dubbed the Black Mobilization Campaign and held as part of the largest-ever International AIDS Conference. Six months later, as the nation marks National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day today, the signs are everywhere that those fateful three days in Canada are bearing fruit. Even the campaign’s founder, the Black AIDS Institute’s Phill Wilson, is pleased.

It was Wilson who invited more than 100 of the most powerful African-American clergy, media executives and civil rights and political leaders to put their heads together in Toronto to offer innovative strategies for cutting black HIV infection rates in half during the next five years, increasing access to care and treatment and making it harder for black Americans to go without knowing their HIV status until it’s too late to do something about it.

By all accounts, the Toronto gathering was electrifying, especially when it came time to hear the specific and solemn commitments that Wilson demanded of each participant. “It was so exciting to hear from so many different black organizations there,” says Cheryl Cooper, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women.

Yet as the meeting dispersed, Wilson had his doubts that the participants’ lofty promises would be achieved. Would the November elections sidetrack these busy leaders? What about the effects of the Bush administration’s abstinence-only policies and the shortage of funds for this kind of work? “We knew that it was going to be a challenge making sure HIV had a proper place on their plates,” says Wilson.

The initial successes speak for themselves, Wilson says now. Cooper’s Toronto pledge—to co-sponsor this year’s national black women’s HIV conference It’s All About M.E.E! (a.k.a. The Mobilization, Education & Empowerment Conference)—comes true this weekend in Los Angeles; the full weight of her 72-year-old organization is behind it. “If this is an organization for black women,” says Cooper, “we need to get more involved in the issues that affect black women.” Also for the first time ever, It’s All About M.E.E! co-sponsor (and Black Mobilization Campaign attendee) Marva Smith Battle-Bey, president of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, is putting microbicides front and center at the conference. “This is about empowering women, and if it means going to pharmaceutical companies to assist microbicides and getting more funding, then that is what we will do,” says Smith Battle-Bey. “There needs to be more gender-specific work for HIV and it needs public attention.”

Wilson reports a Toronto-inspired surge of information and commentary online at such community sites as BlackVoices and Black Planet, as well as in hard-hitting feature stories in newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, Los Angeles Sentinel, and The Dallas Examiner. Next week, National Newspaper Publishers Association Acting Executive Director George Curry launches a 25-week HIV op-ed series authored by a range of black leaders—another promise made at the August meeting.

BET, represented in Toronto by Sonya Lockett, vice president of public affairs, has as a result of the Black Mobilization Campaign saturated its on-air content with “Rap It Up” PSAs that talk frankly to a young black audience about prevention, as well as a range of new HIV-related programming. “BET has been doing this since 1998,” says Lockett, “but signing that [Toronto] commitment was about furthering our [work], especially among youth.”

Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) committed in Toronto to push even harder on HIV issues in Washington. This past Monday, February 5, she introduced two new HIV-related bills, one to make HIV testing mandatory in federal prisons and the other to require insurance companies to cover HIV testing. “On a day like today, when you are talking about National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and why it exists, it is a matter of education,” Waters told POZ.

National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is an occasion for a range of extra gestures. The NAACP, for instance, is mailing out special packages to faith-based groups and clergy around the country to help them educate their congregations about HIV. Each folder includes red ribbons for church members’ lapels, HIV fact sheets and sermon “starter kits” that recommend specific Bible verses pertinent to preaching about HIV.

A Toronto reunion scheduled for March 22-25 in Phoenix, Arizona should say more about the Black Mobilization Campaign’s progress than the events of this particular day. Will there be penalties for those not presenting concrete evidence that their organizations are facing the HIV crisis with new innovations and more commitment than before? ”The penalty isn’t handed down from me,” says Wilson. “Our constituents will simply die if we are not successful.”