John Courson: How a personal favor became a turning point

October 13, 2008 

When a group serving mainly gay men with AIDS sought its first state financing in 1986, it found an unlikely ally: Republican party elder Sen. John Courson.

Bill Edens Jr., then the executive director of Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services (PALSS),was the son of Courson’s good friend and fellow party member William Edens, onetime mayor of Forest Acres.

Edens, Jr., — who was HIV positive — called on his father’s old friend to help those dying as the result of AIDS.

In the mid 1980s, hysteria and fear surrounded any discussion of AIDS. Not much was known about the disease, and many of those affected were gay.

“It was time of irrational thought occurring as to how to deal with this (AIDS),” remembers Courson, 63, of Richland County.

He remembers one colleague had even suggested that those with AIDS be tattooed, so others would know to avoid them.

In that climate, Courson took the issue of AIDS to the State House.

In the wee hours of the morning, as the Senate discussed an appropriations bill, Courson rose to talk about AIDS — and to ask for $25,000 for PALSS, because of a friend.

“You’ve got someone like me, a former Marine, known conservative, very involved with Strom Thurmond and Ronald Reagan, taking the floor of the Senate at 2 in the morning saying, ‘We really need to help these people,’” Courson said.

The Senate went silent.

“It was funny,” Courson said, laughing out loud when recalling that morning more than 20 years ago.

“When I mentioned the word ‘AIDS,’ ... everybody was just looking at me.

“The idea that someone who is a conservative Republican would be on the Senate floor, talking about AIDS — people looked perplexed.”

Senators soon abandoned their confusion.

“To the credit of the Senate, they put the money in,” Courson said. “That was a very important moment in South Carolina.

“It allowed for us to work with people who have the disease in a more humane way than it perhaps could have been.”

When the session adjourned, Courson immediately phoned PALSS co-founder Harriet Hancock.

“I called her at about 5:30 or 6 in the morning to tell her we had done it,” Courson said. “It was a wonderful feeling.”

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