Thirty-five years ago, Cleve Jones had an idea to memorialize lives lost to AIDS — and get the country's attention
Aids Memorial Quilt
Credit: Shaun Heasley/Getty

Today the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which recently returned to San Francisco after 20 years in Atlanta, contains 48,000 panels, 100,000 names, and measures to 1.3 million feet. It weighs 54 tons. But 35 years ago, it was an idea in Cleve Jones’ mind.

It was during a candlelight vigil in 1985 that he got the idea. Jones had asked friends to write the names of loved ones who had died from AIDS on placards. He saw all the posters taped to a wall and thought of a quilt. Given that at the time many men who died of AIDS were not able to even have a funeral due to stigma, he realized a quilt could also function as a memorial. It would soon be called the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

“We in the LGBT community understood what was happening in the early 80s,” says Jones, 65, who co-founded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and is the author of When We Rise. (He began his lifelong career in activism as a member of civil rights icon Harvey Milk’s team in San Francisco politics and is played by Emile Hirsch in the movie Milk.)

“We had to create systems of care and support ourselves,” Jones tells PEOPLE for this week’s issue.

He mentions the grassroots medical advocacy pioneered by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which worked with — and, at times, demonstrably prodded along — the pharmaceutical industry, achieving faster clinical trials and creating the practice of compassionate care.

For more on the AIDS Memorial Quilt’s impact, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Founders of The Names Project in Washington, D.C. Top row (L-R): Joey Van es Ballesteros, Cleve Jones, Gert McMullin, Evelyn Martinez and Mike Smith. Bottom row: Jack Caster, Scott Iago, Sandy O’Rourke and Debra Resnik
| Credit: Courtesy Mike Smith

But when it became time to start the AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1987, Jones needed to find someone who could sew. In walked a woman named Gert McMullin. She would go on to create more panels than anyone else — and never leave the quilt.

Gert McMullin
| Credit: Courtesy Mike Smith

RELATED VIDEO: Leftover Fabric from the AIDS Memorial Quilt Now Being Used to Make Coronavirus Masks

Then Jones needed someone who could get them organized. That was Mike Smith’s job.

Smith, who, at the time was a Stanford graduate mourning the loss of a good friend to AIDS, became in charge of bringing the bold, ambitious idea into reality. They would need to move fast, he remembers, as they wanted to take the quilt to Washington, D.C. in 1987 and for a subsequent 20-city tour around the United States.

“The quilt was a memorial, but also a trojan horse,” he says. “We wanted to use a quilt, something that you normally associate with your grandmother, to drag the dead bodies across the country. We had to show the country that people were dying.”

Aids Memorial Quilt
Aids Memorial Quilt

More than 700,000 Americans would die from AIDS, which has claimed about 32 million lives around the world, according to the National Institutes of Health. Panels are still being made for victims of the disease.

Today the quilt is in the care of the National AIDS Memorial in San Francisco. It was to be celebrated on April 3 in Golden Gate Park, at the National AIDS Memorial Grove, but the coronavirus pandemic put those plans on hold.

Cleve Jones
Cleve Jones
| Credit: C Flanigan/Getty

While the panels are securely kept in a warehouse in the Bay Area — and overseen by McMullin —their stories continue to resonate worldwide. And the celebration will happen, promises John Cunningham, executive director of the National AIDS Memorial. The plans are still to “show the current state of HIV deaths and remind the nation of the ongoing and immediate toll that AIDS is taking today.”

Cunningham believes there is much to be learned from the AIDS pandemic.

“The quilt is a reminder of what we all have lost,” he says. “But also, how far we have come — and where we need to go.”