When Trayvon Martin was killed four years ago, his mother became part of a cause she had no intention of joining: a movement to bring attention to the senseless deaths of Black Americans in suspiciously racial circumstances.
“I am an unwilling participant in this movement,” said Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton. “I would not have signed up for this. None of us would have.”
The “us” refers to the other mothers of Black men and women who lost their lives to police and gun violence, and whose deaths sparked a national debate about police reform and race relations. Together, the seven mothers took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday to share their thoughts as the “Mothers of the Movement.”
In what has been described as one of the most powerful moments at a political convention, the mothers spoke candidly — sometimes holding back tears — about their children, law enforcement and the relationship between police and communities of color.
“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucy McBath, whose son Jordan Davis was shot and killed in Florida in 2012 by a white man annoyed that Davis and his friends were playing the music in their car too loud. “I lived in fear my son would die like this. I even warned him that because he was a young, Black man, he would meet people who didn’t value his life. That is a conversation no parent should ever have to have.”
“When a young Black life is cut short, it’s not just a personal loss. It is a national loss. It is a loss that diminishes all of us,” said Geneva Reed-Veal, whose daughter Sandra Bland was found hanged with a trash bag in a Texas jail last year three days after being taken into custody following an unlawful traffic stop. “What a blessing to be here tonight, so that Sandy can still speak through her mama.”
In addition to her daughter, Reed-Veal named six other women who also died in police custody that same month: “So many of our children gone but not forgotten.”
These mothers are committed to ensuring their children did not die in vain and are seeking to push the nation to repair the divide that exists between law enforcement and communities of color.
“I didn’t want this spotlight, but I will do everything I can to focus some of that light on a path out of this darkness,” Fulton said.
McBath said that while her son’s life ended, “my job as his mother didn’t. I still wake up every day thinking about how to parent him, how to protect him and his legacy, how to ensure his death doesn’t overshadow his life.”
Now, McBath is using her position to bring about positive change: “We’re going to keep building a future where police officers and communities of color work together in mutual respect to keep children, like Jordan, safe. Because the majority of police officers are good people doing a good job.”
These deaths have spurred demonstrations across the country, fueled the Black Lives Matter movement and increased the pressure on government to deal with the issues of gun violence, police brutality and racial inequalities.
In a delicate attempt to balance the injustices to people of color at the hands of police, while also showing support for law enforcement, the Mothers of the Movement were introduced by Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay, who said Americans should “respect and support our police officers while at the same time [push] for these important criminal justice reforms.”
The other mothers on stage who did not speak included:
Gwen Carr, whose son Eric Garner died at 43 after a New York police officer put him in a chokehold in Staten Island, New York, in 2014. In a video that went viral, Garner can be heard repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.” The officer, Daniel Pantaleo, was not indicted.
Lezley McSpadden, whose 18-year-old son Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. A grand jury decided not to indict the officer, Darren Wilson.
Annette Nance-Holt, whose 16-year-old son Blair Holt was killed by gunfire on a Chicago city bus in 2007 after trying to shield a friend from a gang shootout.
Maria Hamilton, the mother of Dontré Hamilton, who was fatally shot by a white police officer in Milwaukee in 2014. The officer, Christopher Manney, was not held accountable.
Wanda Johnson, whose 22-year-old son Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a white police officer in Oakland in 2009. The officer, Johannes Mehserle, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison.
Cleopatra Pendleton-Cowley, whose 15-year-old daughter Hadiya Pendleton was shot by gang members in Chicago in 2013. Two people were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. First Lady Michelle Obama attended Pendleton’s funeral.