In 2016, nine women stood on stage at the Democratic National Convention, united by the deaths of their children.
Gwen Carr, Sybrina Fulton, Maria Hamilton, Lucy McBath, Lesley McSpadden, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, Annette Nance-Holt, Wanda Johnson and Geneva Reed-Veal endorsed Hillary Clinton that night, joined together as Mothers of the Movement—an ever-growing group of African American mothers fighting against the police brutality, gun violence and systemic racism that allowed for their children to be killed.
Those women have since been joined in experience by Tamika Palmer, mother of Breonna Taylor (2020); Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile (2016); Demetree Wynn, mother of Dreasjon Reed (2020); Wanda Cooper-Jones, mother of Ahmaud Arbery (2020); Allison Jean, mother of Botham Jean (2018); Debra Shirley, mother of Michelle Lee Shirley (2016); and SeQuette Clark, mother of Stephon Clark (2018), to name a just few.
It is a reminder—as activists and politicians have been trying to hammer home for some time—that the action and anger taking place across the country has not only emerged because of George Floyd’s death. His murder added fuel to an existing fire.
Gwen Carr, racial justice activist and mother of Eric Garner (2014), said at a protest on June 14 in New Jersey:
“Are you in a moment or a movement? If you are in a moment—a moment, you know what a moment is? Spontaneous. We get mad, we get out, we march, we scream, we holler and then, we go back to our regular lives. That’s a moment. A movement is strategic. After the moment is over, we continue, we continue with what’s next.”
While there is undoubtedly a fresh urgency driving the action taking place now, the fight for Black lives has been raging for decades upon decades.
In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi. In 2018, the Washington Post reported that following his death, the actions of his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, were instrumental in sparking the Civil Rights movement.
Seven decades later, it is easy to feel like nothing has changed. Till was not the first to be brutally killed because of his race, and George Floyd has already proven not to be the last.
The mothers of those lost know this better than anyone, and they are working to change that fact.
Gwen Carr and the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act
On June 8, the New York State Assembly passed the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, which criminalizes the harmful use of chokeholds by police officers. The act is named in honor of Garner, who died in 2014 with the now-famous last words, “I can’t breathe.”
George Floyd said the same thing before his death, six years after Garner’s, and the chilling repetition was undoubtedly part of the final push for the act to be passed.
Garner’s mother’s activism also played a major role in the passage of the legislation. Since her son’s death, Carr has been a key advocate for police reform and a powerful voice in the national fight against racism.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Carr said that, following her son’s murder:
“At first I said I was just going to take to my bed and stay there until this awful nightmare was over. But then I realized it was never going to be over, because at least with a nightmare you wake up—but I never woke up. It’s still going on … I decided that I had to go out and I had to do something about it.”
Many credit Carr with leading the push to get the act passed, along with several other pieces of legislation on police reform. As New York State Senator Diane Sevino said, “She’s dedicated her life to trying to find ways to improve those relationships, and better outcomes for everyone.”
The act is somewhat symbolic, as an NPR review of chokehold and stranglehold bans in some of the largest police departments found them relatively ineffective and poorly enforced. But advocates argue solidifying the ban into law may serve as a deterrent to police use of force.
Since Floyd’s death, Carr has remained at the forefront of activism, saying in a moving speech at the aforementioned protest:
“All of the marching, the screaming, all of that, is not going to get justice. The marching is to get attention that there is a problem […] We have to go to our legislatures, our lawmakers, and then when they tell us that they’re going to do what it is that we asked them to do, we must hold their feet to the fire.”
Sybrina Fulton and Miami-Dade County Commissioner
Another poignant point Carr made in her speech was the importance of having Black leaders in office. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” she said, to shouts of affirmation from the crowd.
Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin (2012), is taking steps to make sure she is at the table. She recently announced her candidacy for Miami-Dade County Commissioner, saying in an Instagram video:
“At first I didn’t want to be the voice for Trayvon after he died, but I decided I have no choice. … It took my son being shot down in order for me to stand up, but I’m standing now.”
Other mothers who have lost sons to gun violence and police brutality have also found power and meaning in running for office, such as Lucy McBath, mother of Jordan Davis (2012) and current House Representative for Georgia’s 6th District.
Kadiatou Diallo and Collette Flanagan on Protesting and George Floyd
At the front of a protest in New York following Floyd’s death, Kadiatou Diallo, mother of Amadou Diallo (1999) marched with Valerie Bell, mother of Sean Bell (2006) and Constance Malcolm, mother of Ramarley Graham (2012).
In Floyd’s final moments, struggling for air with his neck under the knee of a police officer, he called out for his mother.
Larcenia Floyd, George Floyd’s mother, died in 2018. Her son was buried beside her on June 9. While she cannot stand in protest of her son’s death, other mothers stand in her place.
“When George Floyd called his mama,” said Diallo, “all of the mothers were summoned to push forward and make things happen. Our strength, our strength is to really push forward the change we need because we’re not going to give up.”
These women lost sons in different moments spanning over more than a decade. They fight not just for justice for their own children, but for a future—a present—in which no mother will ever have to join their ranks again.
For Collette Flanagan, mother of Clinton Allen (2013) and founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality, keeping the bigger picture in mind is key.
“I decided long ago,” she said in an interview with Ms. on June 19, “losing our children [and] family members at the hands of police brutality was ‘bigger’ than one child. … This work is not new to us [and] it remains our focus every day, long after the cameras and media [are] gone.”
Even after decades of fighting for justice, many mothers still hold onto a grim hope, and see something different about those fighting for change now. Flanagan said:
“I see more people, more white people than ever, taking a stand against police brutality since Floyd’s death [and] deciding to be on the right side of history and humanity.”
The 22 mothers named in this article are a small fraction of the total number of Black mothers who have suffered the loss of their child and who stood up to fight back after their loss.
Yet this small fraction has made and continues to make an immense difference. From passing legislation to securing seats in office to raising money to raising their voices, these women have spent years defending Black lives after their own children’s deaths.
And they aren’t stopping now.