Long time gay rights activist Cleve Jones conceived the concept for the AIDS Memorial Quilt, in 1985. For the annual memorial march for Harvey Milk, Jones planned to have marchers write the names of their loved ones who had died of HIV/AIDS related causes onto posters, to honor their memories and call attention to the more than 1,000 San Franciscans who had died up to that point. The marchers carried these signs to the San Francisco Federal Building, where they taped them to the walls, creating an assemblage of posters that looked like a patchwork quilt. For Jones, this sparked the idea of creating a permanent memorial for the victims of the disease in the form of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
In 1987, Cleve Jones worked with Mike Smith and volunteers to organize the NAMES Project Foundation, an independent, international, non-profit organization, meant to house the AIDS Memorial Quilt and its associated archival materials. The main goals of the organization are to provide a creative means for remembrance and healing, illustrate the enormity of the AIDS epidemic, increase public awareness of HIV/AIDS, and raise funds for and assist other organizations in providing community services to those affected by AIDS.
In 2000, the NAMES Project Foundation moved its national headquarters from San Francisco to Atlanta. This move allowed the organization to attain greater financial stability, and to focus their efforts on the new face of the AIDS epidemic.
After 30 years of being pieced together, the AIDS Memorial Quilt weighs more than 54 tons, and consists of more than 49,000 panels, containing over 96,000 names.