An Open Letter to the U.S. Black Religious, intellectual, and Political Leadership Regarding AIDS and the Sexual Holocaust in Africa

Brothers and Sisters,

When a future generation of black scholars conduct their historical research on the moral and political life of U. S. black leadership in the final decade of the twentieth century, how shall they judge our performance regarding the AIDS holocaust in sub-Saharan Africa? How shall our inaction - especially the inaction of black men - withstand the judgment of history? What verdict will our descendants render upon their ancestors who stood by silently as a generation of African children were reduced to a biological underclass by this sexual holocaust? No doubt they will find that a few lonely voices spoke out such as Julian Bond and Ronald Dellums but will they not ask whether we as a leadership class could not have done more?

Such questions must now be publicly confronted in the face of a human tragedy which is, in some respects, more devastating than the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Charitable scholars may situate our failures in this crisis in a comparative context. In other words, they will note that in the twentieth century we were not the only leadership class to collapse in the face of a genocidal catastrophe. Earlier in this very century others, when faced with the threat of genocidal destruction failed, whether due to paralysis, denial or disbelief, to respond in defense of their own people. The moral and political failures of others, however, will not be a sufficient explanation for why the most powerful and influential black leadership class in the world failed to act decisively in defense of their women and children.

AIDS is the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa. The urgent need to leverage every resource available to us to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa has been incontrovertibly documented. According to a powerful Boston Globe series written by Will Haygood and Kurt Shillinger in October, the number of AIDS orphans in Africa will reach 13 million by the year 2001. In Zimbabwe alone the number of orphans is 670,000, with 60,000 more being added to that number each year. Each year, ten times more Africans die from AIDS than are killed in all of African's military conflicts combined.

The numbers are horrifying: Of the 5.6 million new HIV infections in 1999, according to the United Nations Program on AIDS, fully 4 million were in Africa. Half were among young people ages 15 to 24, and far more than half of those afflicted were female. Two-thirds of the AIDS cases in the world are now in sub-Saharan Africa. One adult in 4 in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Botswana now has the HIV virus. Half of these cases in sub-Saharan Africa are women. The numbers are so massive in southern Africa that life expectancy is likely to drop to 45 years within the next five years after climbing to 59 in the early 1990s. In the past five years - according to a U.S. Census Bureau report - life expectancy in Zimbabwe has dropped from 61 years to 39 years; in Botswana it has fallen back from 60 to 40, and in Kenya the situation is very similar. As unbelievable as these statistics are things are only getting worse. A survey of pre-natal clinics in one southern province in Zimbabwe indicated a 67 percent infection rate for the women there. In Zambia there are communities of only the elderly and the very young; the rest have been obliterated. The AIDS epidemic is even contributing to the deforestation of significant areas - because of coffin construction. All this means that in southern Africa we are witnessing the creation of a virtual biological underclass.

In this situation in which millions are perishing, the behavior of the citizens of the affected countries is profoundly troubling, by virtue of its escalating effect on the epidemic. For example, it is reported that in South Africa a woman is raped every 26 seconds, contributing to the 1,600 people a day who are infected with HIV Just as disturbing is the rumored source of the increase in the rate of rape: a spreading myth that sexual intercourse with young girls can cure or prevent the disease.

Behind the statistics on rape lurk facts that are in some respects just as ominous. In sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS is transmitted primarily through heterosexual contact. Widespread promiscuity, essentially fatal behavior, is often typical. The Boston Globe series quoted the head of the United Nations AIDS program for Eastern and Southern Africa as saying: "Without addressing behavior, the response to prevention strategies will always be limited." Promiscuity and rape now objectively function as weapons of suicidal mass destruction. In such a context of cultural decay, abstinence and sexual fidelity appear as revolutionary concepts.

In too many cases African leaders have not confronted the problem of AIDS: the South African government has spent only $13 million on AIDS education and care programs in the last 5 years. At the same time they are spending $6.5 billion on three new submarines and other military hardware. Not a single African head of state attended the recent international AIDS conference in Zambia, including the president of the host country. Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident, but an example of a pattern of deliberate neglect by these leaders. While these African nations obviously do not have the resources to treat AIDS victims using the extremely expensive cocktail of drugs now widely available in the West, their efforts at public education have dearly failed to communicate to the masses of citizens the urgency of the situation, and the exigencies of preventative behavior. Deep rooted cultural patterns are implicated in these issues, which call for sensitively crafted solutions. It does not appear that many African governments have engaged the issues at this level.

One example of modest success for the African nations is Uganda. The government's campaign there, led by the President, Yoweri Museveni himself, has led to a dramatic decline in the rate of HIV prevalence, from 28% to 13%. The key to the success of the campaign is seen as being an effective public education campaign focused on openness in confronting the disease, and the ready availability of testing and counseling. Despite Uganda's progress, President Museveni has again called for a re-invigoration of the anti-AIDS campaign. Uganda's example proves that much can be done and that African heads of state in particular must do more to bring this crisis into full public view in their nations.

Elleni West, head of the Ethiopian AIDS Project and Cornel West, University Professor at Harvard University, convened a major conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in Fall 1999. This conference was the largest ever convened in Ethiopia regarding AIDS prevention. Such excellent efforts must be replicated throughout Africa.

In view of the horror that confronts our African brothers and sisters, black leaders in the U.S. face three main tasks: public education, political advocacy, and humanitarian assistance. First, education: Black leaders in the United States have the political clout, and the access to the levers of power that are needed to educate elected officials about this issue. At the same time the public, especially the black public, must be educated to advocate for foreign and development policy decisions that will support and encourage African governments in their efforts to confront this crisis.


Second, political advocacy: Black leaders must challenge African leadership to be more accountable to the needs of their own women and children. We must, on humanitarian grounds, challenge African leaders to mobilize their societies to exact a high price for the rape of all women, especially of innocent girls. Why have Black churches, especially the seven major black denominations, not used their unique position to serve as more effective advocates for the needs and interests of millions. of orphans in Africa? They should develop a strategic alliance with the IMF, the World Bank and other international lending agencies to demand debt forgiveness for African nations, thereby freeing up financial resources to be re-directed towards the AIDS crisis.

We implore the Congress of National Black Churches and the Black leadership of the Roman Catholic community to speak more forcefully and consistently on the ethical and moral dimensions of this sexual holocaust. We especially need male leadership on this issue on the domestic front.

We call upon Maxine Waters and the other members of the Congressional Black Caucus to demand that the Clinton administration take a more active role in this crisis. First, they must call for complete debt forgiveness for all sub-Saharan African nations. We challenge Susan E. Rice, Assistant Secretary for African affairs, to demand that the major Western pharmaceutical monopolies permit African companies to lower the price of drug cocktails. Churches, in particular, must apply moral and political pressure to pharmaceutical companies directly. Western pharmaceutical companies no longer can be permitted to exploit the suffering of millions of black people.

We call upon Black Protestant and Roman Catholic students, seminarians and intellectuals to mount a grassroots educational campaign which focuses upon the interrelationship among sexual behavior, AIDS and poverty. Black journalists have a special role to play. We appeal to Edward Lewis and Susan Taylor of Essence and Robert Johnson of BET and Emerge to do more. We acknowledge your efforts to date, but we beg you to give the most extraordinary crisis confronting the Black world since slavery the attention it merits. We call upon our young captains of blackness such as Tavis Smiley and George E. Curry to challenge both black leadership and African governments on their relative inaction on this issue. We plead with Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes, Bernard Shaw of CNN and Oprah Winfrey to investigate the role of sexual behavior in the AIDS crisis, and to expose the deadly impact of the code of silence on this issue. We are confident that you believe, as we do, that the condition of millions of orphans in Africa is a subject large enough to merit your journalistic attention. Lastly, we call upon the leadership of the National Association of Black Journalists to stand up like free-thinking black men and women and plead the case of millions of black orphans in Africa.

We call upon Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover and other members of the conscious wing of the black entertainment industry to elevate this issue as an educational priority. We appeal to them to give the issue of AIDS and sexual behavior the same level of visibility that a previous generation gave the issue of apartheid in South Africa.

Third, humanitarian assistance: We desperately need the leadership of the civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League to bring their considerable prestige and influence to bear on this issue. We need to hear more from them in defense of the most vulnerable of all AIDS victims, the children. We call upon the Special Envoy to Africa, the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., to bring his gifts for publicity and his powerful rhetoric to mount a grassrootss campaign for morally responsible sexual behavior on the part of men of African descent. All elements of black leadership in the United States must provide massive quantities of direct support for AIDS orphans: food, clothing, medicine, manpower to distribute supplies and care for children and technical support to organize the effort.

While there have been some efforts both in African nations and on the domestic front, all have been woefully inadequate given the overwhelming scale and magnitude of the crisis confronting us. Given that the future holds much worse than the past, we call upon all leaders of African descent, here and abroad, to rise to the challenge and use all the resources at their disposal to attack this problem. We owe no less than this to our descendants.

In the Service of Christ,


REVEREND DAVID N. WRIGHT, M.D. Pastor, West Angeles Church of God in Christ Pastor, Community Church of God in Christ, Bishop, First Episcopal District, Southern California Richmond, Virginia and member of the General Board of Bishops, Church of God in Christ, Los Angeles, California


Former Executive Secretary

Gore/Mbeki Bi-national Commission, Washington, D.C.


Pastor, Austin Corinthian Baptist Church

Chair, Board of the National Black

Evangelical Association, Chicago, Illinois


Executive Director, MathPower

Azusa Christian Community, Boston, Massachusetts


Associate Professor of Religion

Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio


Boston University, Boston, Massachussetts


Founder and President, Seymour Institute

Co-founder, Boston TenPoint Coalition

Co-founder, National TenPoint Leadership Foundation

Pastor, Azusa Christian Community, Boston, Massachusetts


University of Massachusetts, Boston, Massachusetts


Fellow, Seymour Institute, Boston, Massachusetts


Pastor, Youngs Memorial Church of Christ,

United Holy Church of America, Washington, D.C., J,


Chair, Twenty First Century Group Holiness,

Fellow, Seymour Institute, Boston, Massachusetts


Indianapolis TenPoint Coalition, Indianapolis, Indiana


Rhode Island TenPoint Coalition, Providence, Rhode Island


Twenty First Century Group

Fellow, Seymour Institute, Boston, Massachusetts


Twenty First Century Group

Fellow, Seymour Institute, Boston, Massachusetts


Senior Fellow, Seymour Institute

Associate, Voice of Calvary Fellowship, Jackson, Mississippi


Pastor, Holy Temple Church, Boston, Massachusetts


Twenty First Century Group

Fellow, Seymour Institute, Boston, Massachusetts


Twenty First Century Group

Fellow, Seymour Institute, Boston, Massachusetts


Founder and CEO, Healing Our Land, Boston, Massachusetts

Revised December 12, 1999

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