Three mothers who lost their sons to gun violence found a way to channel their grief into activism. They share their powerful stories and explain why they won't stop fighting to make a difference.

By Maressa Brown
June 04, 2021
Advertisement
An image of a gun free zone sign.
Credit: Getty Images.

In 2013, a teen named Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in Chicago. Following her death, her friends wore orange in honor of Pendleton. Since then, it has been adopted as the color of gun violence prevention movement. And on June 2, 2015, gun sense activists came together to create Wear Orange Day, which is observed on the first Friday in June and the following weekend every year. The event presents an opportunity to recognize the resilience of survivors, like mothers who've devoted their voices to the cause after losing sons and other loved ones to gun violence.

This year, it also offers a chance to discuss the themes of a new report by Everytown Research and Policy called "Invisible Wounds: Gun Violence and Community Trauma among Black Americans," which highlights the disproportionate way the Black community experiences gun violence, including the fact Black Americans are 10 times more likely to die by gun homicide than white Americans. The report also emphasizes how much mothers are impacted by the death of a child by gun violence.

Here, three moms who've lived that story and are a part of the Everytown Survivor Network discuss their trauma, perseverance, and how they are channeling their grief into making a difference.

Brenda Mitchell holding a photo of her son, Kenneth.
Brenda Mitchell holding a photo of her son, Kenneth.
| Credit: Everytown

My son Kenneth was killed in a random act of violence a week after taking his brother Kevin to the airport to fight in his third tour of duty in the Middle East. Kenneth was a single parent, raising two boys, and he was expecting a third, born 30 days after his death, who cannot understand how everyone knows his father but him. I had to recreate his father for him through my picture albums.

We all experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It impacted me to the point where it totally wreaked havoc on my physical being, and my emotional being was on standby. I was afraid to go to sleep, because every time I went to sleep, my blood pressure would go extremely high. I thought I was going to die. And at times, I did come close to dying. I couldn't think analytically; my cognitive memory had been affected.

But there was a moment in which I took a stance and made the choice to live. I've learned to channel my energy to prevent another mother, another family, another community from experiencing what my grandsons and I experienced.

I got involved with Moms Demand Action and the Everytown Survivor Network, and it changed my life. I wanted to bring attention to trauma in our community and trauma amongst the survivors of gun violence, be it the mothers, grandsons, siblings. We bear wounds that cannot be healed.

Now, being a part of the Survivor Network carries so much meaning for me, so much synergy. With the friends I met, I am validated without saying a word. We have all become each other's lifelines. We don't falter. We don't fail. We continue to rise up.

—Brenda Mitchell, Chicago, Illinois

Valerie Burgest with her son, Craig.
Valerie Burgest with her son, Craig.
| Credit: Everytown

My son's name is Craig Williams. I don't refer to him all the time in the past tense. I typically refer to him in the present tense, because he's still here in my heart. And he's still here in my world. It's not that I'm in denial; it's just that I'm gonna let his memory live on.

Craig was my only child, and at 23 years old, he was shot and killed in Chicago on December 28, 2013. The word on the street was that it was a mistaken identity. But almost eight years later, his murder is still unsolved. Craig was also a devoted father, leaving behind two young children who did not get the opportunity to experience a father's love.

Being an only child, Craig tended to navigate toward people who had big families, and his best female friend came from a huge family. They embraced each other as family. Because of that, I have bonus nieces and nephews, and I have this huge extended family that are still active with me today. They still check to make sure I'm OK. I cannot even begin to express the devastation that his murder cost in my world, in the world of his friends and family.

I really didn't know what to do with the pain that I was experiencing, but I soon stumbled across Moms Demand Action. By extension, I became an Everytown Survivor fellow. And that has given me a platform to help others to understand who Craig was through my eyes.

It's gratifying in a way because you find yourself in a room full of people to whom you don't have to explain your emotions. We know each other's pain.

We know that the causes of guns violence aren't just putting a gun in somebody's hands. The root causes are systemic racism. People turn against each other because they live in a food desert, don't have safe and affordable housing, don't have access to affordable and quality health care, don't have access to transportation, so that even if they find a decent paying job, how are they going to get there? And it won't change until communities began to understand that they are the ones who have the power to change it. They just need to know that they have that power. I would like for people in communities of color to know that they have a voice and that they need to raise that voice. You can be the change that you need to have happen.

—Valerie Burgest, Chicago, Illinois

Shenee Johnson holding a photo of her son, Kendrick Ali Morrow, Jr.
Shenee Johnson holding a photo of her son, Kendrick Ali Morrow, Jr.
| Credit: Everytown

My first experience with gun violence was in 2003 when my fiancé was killed while I was two months pregnant. I really didn't know what to do.

My second experience was when my eldest son Kedrick Ali Morrow, Jr.'s life was taken from him a few weeks before he was supposed to graduate from high school in 2010. We cultivated him to be this amazing young man, very respectful. Everyone loved him. He was graduating with honors and had received an academic scholarship to St. John's University.

For me, the hardest part was speaking at Kevin's high school graduation. I really didn't want to do it. These young people were embarking on the rest of their lives, and I had to speak on behalf of my son, who went through the entire school with them, and now, he wasn't there.

But I'm glad I spoke to them. It became my first of many speaking engagements. After that speech, I started meeting other mothers in the Queens, New York area who had lost loved ones to gun violence. I started a support group, because I needed that for myself, and they needed it. And we decided that we were going to make a difference.

About four years later, I met up with another mom who was in Moms Demand Action. And she was also a Everytown Survivor fellow. Soon, we became like family. I have survivor friends from across the country. Although we met under the most horrible circumstances, I can talk to Brenda or Valerie, and they helped me to be strong.

When my son's father was killed, I didn't know how to utilize my voice, and there was a little shame and guilt. I don't know why we internalize things like that, but I did. But after my son's death, and after meeting so many other mothers like me, I was like, "Oh, this is what I was meant to do. This is my life's calling."

What I do now to honor Kedrick's memory is I advocate. I advocate for common sense gun laws. And I work with my local community. I just started a basketball team in his memory. When I'm on the court with them, I see all of these Kedrick. And I decided that I want to do all that I can to make sure that these young people live their lives.

I'm still dealing with trauma. I'm afraid something's going to happen to my child. I'm not outside at night by myself alone. My family members recognize that, and they've been patient with me. I've also sought counsel before, but it's something that's not going to get away from me. And I deal with it.

I'm tired. I've been doing this for a very long time. But when it comes to advocating, I won't stop. I can't stop. I have dedicated my life into saving the lives of young people.

—Shenee Johnson, Queens, New York