On September 27, 1987, more than 2,000 people march 6.2 miles in Seattle to raise money for AIDS treatment and research. Starting at Memorial Stadium, the walkers proceed down Broad Street to Myrtle Edwards Park, make a loop through the park, and continue south on Alaskan Way to Spring Street. They return along Western Avenue to Seattle Center for a free concert by local musical groups. "It's not a moral issue, but the most important health issue in the history of the world," U.S. Representative Mike Lowry tells the crowd of the growing AIDS epidemic. "Today we're going to vote with our feet to get the money the federal government should be providing. And we'll keep voting until we get the money" ("AIDS Walkathon ..."). The event raises more than $335,000. Future AIDS Walks, held annually in September, will raise as much as $1.5 million.
Walking for a Cause
As 1987 dawned, 168 people in King County had died of AIDS and hundreds more had been diagnosed as HIV-positive or were living with full-blown AIDS. When the city's LGBTQ community gathered at Volunteer Park in June for the usually festive national observance of Gay and Lesbian Pride, "amid the flamboyance was the sobering reminder of the AIDS virus that has brought drastic changes to gay lifestyles. Unable to walk, several people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome rode floats in the parade as a reminder of the need for more federal money for research and more support for those coping with the disease" ("Gay, Lesbian Pride Events ..."). The following month in San Francisco, a throng estimated at 5,000 took part in AIDS Walk San Francisco, a 10-kilometer stroll through Golden Gate Park. Each participant was backed by sponsors who agreed to contribute $1 to $100 for every kilometer walked. The event raised more than $500,000.
Using the blueprint established in San Francisco, Boston, and four other U.S. cities, the Northwest AIDS Foundation announced in August that it would stage a similar walkathon in Seattle — billed as From All Walks of Life — "as a display of growing public determination to curb the spread of AIDS. Proceeds here will be allocated to the foundation, the Pike Place Market, Country Doctor Clinics, and other agencies involved in assisting AIDS patients and education programs ... The Seattle walkathon also is significant, a foundation spokesman says, because it is receiving co-sponsorship from such heavyweight corporations as Pacific Northwest Bell, Seafirst and Washington Mutal banks, Immunex, Northern Life Insurance and others" ("Seattle Fund-Raiser ...").
Held under sunny skies on September 27, 1987, From All Walks of Life attracted more than 2,000 participants. The gathering began at Memorial Stadium at 9 a.m. for pre-walk festivities that included music, guest speakers, and a mass aerobics class on the field to warm up the walkers. Many wore costumes, including six walkers who participated as one long monorail, and another dressed up as the Space Needle.
The opening ceremony included remarks from Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, U.S. Representatives Mike Lowry and John Miller, Pacific Northwest Bell chief executive Andy Smith, and several people with AIDS. Miller said it was "impossible to know too much about AIDS. The danger is in knowing too little" ("AIDS Walkathon ..."). Smith received a standing ovation, as did Lowry, who denounced President Ronald Reagan's characterization of AIDS as a moral issue. "It's not a moral issue," Lowry said, "but the most important health issue in the history of the world" ("AIDS Walkathon ..."). Organizers dedicated the event to AIDS patient and activist Michael Otto, who had spent the previous four days undergoing treatment at Swedish Hospital and was released from the hospital an hour before the walkathon. Otto, 33, managed to walk part of the course in his weakened condition and rode the rest in a van. He died three months later, one of the more than 100 King County residents to succumb to AIDS in 1987.
After returning to Memorial Stadium, participants were treated to a free, three-hour concert featuring Annie Rose and the Thrillers, the Total Experience Choir, the Caribbean Super Stars Steel Band, and several other musical acts, along with a performance by the Seattle chapter of the Tacky Tourists Club, a satirical theater group. By all accounts, the event was an unqualified success. According to the final tally announced in late October, the 2,000 walkers were supported by contributions from 26,000 people who gave more than $335,000. In December, walkathon organizer Patricia Benavidez received a Humanitarian Award from the Seattle Chapter of the United Nations Association for her efforts.
A Lasting Legacy
Buoyed by the success of its first AIDS Walk, the Northwest AIDS Foundation made it an annual event, still held every year in September. "Initially, the cost of mounting the walk took one-third of NWAF’s funds on hand, a huge risk for a young organizaton. The risk paid off. Each September, corporate and political leaders joined media personalities and walk teams from the many communities affected by AIDS. By the fifth annual walk, the event drew 13,000 concerned people to the streets and raised $1.2 million for 30 organizations providing AIDS education and services. In addition to the tremendously visible Walk, other grassroots fundraising brought in much-needed dollars for AIDS services, including Jars in Bars, the Bunny Brigade, and the perennial and popular events by the Tacky Tourist Club" ("A History ...").
The AIDS Walk reached its apex in 1991 when it raised $1.5 million, after which donations declined gradually in succeeding years as the medical community advanced treatments for HIV and AIDS. Nevertheless, as of 2022 the AIDS Walk remained an important fundraiser for the Lifelong AIDS Alliance, which formed in 2001 (when the Northwest AIDS Foundation merged with the Chicken Soup Brigade), and an important gathering to remember the more than 40 million people worldwide who lost their lives to the disease.
After Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced an "End AIDS Washington" campaign in December 2014, Lifelong rebranded the event as the End AIDS Walk Seattle. The 30th annual walk took place in September 2016 at Volunteer Park and raised about $250,000. When the COVID-19 pandemic halted large in-person gatherings, the 2020 and 2021 walks were held virtually. In May 2021, Lifelong collaborated with similar agencies in San Francisco, New Orleans, Milwaukee, and Austin, Texas, to stage AIDS Walk: Live at Home, a TV and streaming spectacular featuring a lineup of musicians, actors, authors, and activists. "In Washington state and around the country, we continue to see Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities disproportionately impacted by new HIV cases," said Lifelong CEO Claire Neal. "We are excited to work hand-in-hand with like-minded organizations througout the nation collaborating on AIDS Walk: Live at Home" ("Seattle AIDS Walk Joins ...").