Homicide is the leading cause of death for Black males aged 44 and younger in America, and many of these deaths are the result of gun violence. In Philadelphia, where hundreds of people are shot each year, and most are Black males, Mothers in Charge (MIC) supports women and families who have lost loved ones to violence. Members and staff of the organization appeared in “Heaven: Can You Hear Me?,” a short documentary about grief and recovery that aired on the World Channel and PBS in February.
Four mothers featured in the film told their heartbreaking stories to The Marshall Project. In Part 1 of our series, we hear from Dr. Dorothy Johnson-Speight, a licensed family therapist and the founder of Mothers in Charge. Her son, Khaaliq Jabbar Johnson, was killed in 2001 at age 24.
Gun violence is more prevalent in Philadelphia than when I was growing up in the 1960s. Back then, there were gangs that would occasionally fight. There would be a stabbing or someone would snatch an antenna off of a car and use it, but there wasn’t the degree of guns that you see now.
By the time I was raising Khaaliq in the ‘90s, guns were becoming more of a problem. There was an incident when Khaaliq and his school buddies were accosted and robbed at gunpoint at a city bus stop. Khaaliq was destroyed by that. He came home and punched the wall out of anger.
One Halloween, Khaaliq’s best friend decided to egg a woman’s car. Well, the woman came out of her house and fatally shot him. Khaaliq, who was 17 years old at the time, was devastated. This was the first time he had lost a close friend to violence.
Back then, I knew those most at risk of gun violence in Philadelphia were Black boys and men between the ages of 14 and 24. I kept praying that my son would not become a statistic. I thought that if he just made it past 24, he’d be fine.
Khaaliq went to college and earned his bachelor’s degree. He did social work, and he was very good at understanding the mental-health and behavioral needs of young children. We even decided to get our master’s degrees together and “hang a shingle.”
Khaaliq turned 24 in June 2001. In December, a neighbor shot him seven times over a parking dispute. So, he too, became a statistic in our community.
A couple of months after Khaaliq’s death, I was watching the news and I saw this woman asking for help identifying the person who killed her son that past summer — about half a year before my son was killed. I felt a connection with her because her son was murdered not far from where Khaaliq died. She said there was a person running from the scene, a Black man that owned pitbulls. That sounded familiar to me, so I went to the block where she lived and started knocking on doors trying to find her.
We sat at her dining room table for about an hour comparing notes about our sons’ murders. That’s when we realized that the person who shot and killed my son over a parking space in December had stabbed her son to death about five months earlier. This is what violence does if left unaddressed: It spreads and harms many different people. This is why it’s a public health crisis.
Going through the court system made grief something that happened in starts and fits. I had to go to court, then wait for a trial date and wait for a verdict — a process that took nearly two years. I kept waiting for this justice that would make me all better.
I did feel a sense of relief when the man who killed our sons was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences. Little did I know, that conviction wasn’t bringing Khaaliq back. I would still be on a journey of insurmountable grief for a very, very long time. I still couldn’t go on with my life because my son wasn’t there. The pain remained in my heart, my stomach, and everywhere in my body.
I had experience with grief and pain: Before Khaaliq was killed, I lost my mom, my dad, my only sibling, and a daughter to an illness. But none of that compared to his death. Murder complicates the mourning process.
A couple of years after Khaaliq’s murder, I started Mothers in Charge. It began casually, with me and other people who had lost loved ones to violence, meeting in a Denny’s to discuss what we wanted to do about the issue. Then we moved to a small all-purpose room in a local church. Eventually we had our first formal meeting. I thought maybe two people would show up; the room was jam packed.
That was nearly 20 years ago. I’ve spent a lot of time over these years listening to everyone else’s pain, and sometimes it starts to weigh on me. I’ll step away for a minute and practice self-care: get a massage, go on vacation or take myself shopping. A lot of my friends have gone through the same type of loss, so we can support each other in moments like this.
Along with my grief, I’m scared to death of losing another child to gun violence. One of my grandsons is named after Khaaliq, and he’s about to turn 12. In early March, Philadelphia police officers shot and killed a boy his age. That is one of my biggest fears, and the fear of every mother in this city who has a son or daughter that young.
In order to address the type of interpersonal gun violence that killed my son, there needs to be more prevention work. I think community members play a big role in this. This is our problem. The police are not going to solve it, and the politicians aren't going to solve it. We need the community to invest in and make a change on this issue.