As heartwarming as it was to learn of a prayer-laced meeting that brought together the parents of the two students involved in last week’s shooting inside Cummings K-8 Optional School, an account of the get-together yielded a chilling matter of fact.
The one-hour meeting – arranged by Shelby County Schools Supt. Joris Ray – unfolded in his conference room on Tuesday. Both families had lost loved ones to gun violence, Ray shared during a virtual media gathering late Wednesday afternoon.
“Between both sets of parents, they’ve lost over five to six family members over gun violence. This is a community-wide issue ….”
With 100-plus children treated for gunshot wounds at LeBonheur Children’s Hospital alone, according to chief medical officer Barry Gilmore, the scope of the problem is nerve racking. Seemingly at issue now is whether the life-threatening encounter in a stairwell at the school has touched Memphis’ collective nerve deep enough to stimulate and sustain the effort needed to solve the problem.
“Let’s remember that there is nothing normal about a 13-year-old child shooting another child,” Tennessee State Rep. Antonio Parkinson said shortly after the incident.
“Somewhere in the child’s life, we, as a society missed them, the warning signs and the opportunity for intervention. … We have to do better as a society to find ways to positively impact the lives of our children before the roots of violence begins to produce fruit.”
Similarly sobering assessments have been shared by myriad people in varying ways over the last week. Meanwhile, the child who pulled the trigger awaits a juvenile court hearing.
The child shot is back at Cummings.
“Of course, that is a personal issue between the father and the son,” said Ray, who is a father. “It was very important that when the father connected with the other parent to make that decision, he just wanted to see that whatever happened, was it over. …
“The father felt that it was safe for his child to return to school. He felt that things happen but for the most part he felt very resolved in his decision to send his child back to school and we supported that decision.”
All options were on the table, said Ray.
“The student requested and asked to return back to Cummings. We support that decision.”
Emphasizing that as superintendent both teens were “his children,” Ray arranged the meeting buoyed by “a strong message of reconciliation and not retaliation” by the shooting-victim’s father.
“Both parents were really focused on healing. Both parents wanted to be a blessing to uplift the community. … So what I wanted to do was get both sets of parents to have a meaningful dialogue around healing, to try to figure out the root cause of the issue. And to really wrap our arms around both students.”
At one point during the meeting, Ray and the parents joined hands as they prayed for both students “and healing for our entire city. … We believe in the power of forgiveness and we believe in choosing love over hate.”
As the meeting evolved, both sets of parents “acknowledged some things they could have done differently as parents. I thought that was very powerful,” said Ray.
“We talked about how this would be a show for our community to come together. No matter what’s going on, it’s never too late to reconcile, never too late to forgive, never too late to choose love over hate.”
Startled by Dr. Gilmore’s account of the number of children LeBonheur has treated for gunshot wounds already this year, SCS Board President Michelle McKissack spoke of it at Metropolitan Baptist Church on the afternoon after the shooting.
“That number (100) should never ever – ever – get comfortable for us,” she said. “We have to look at – as a school board – what can we continue to do? And Dr. Ray says, ‘If you see something, say something.’ We’re going to have to address that even more so.
“I think as adults, we’ve become used to that. You hear it when you go through the airport. … Unfortunately, we’re going to have to express that even more so with our students in our schools.”
Shante Avant represents SCS District 6, which takes in Cummings.
“So, what we now have to be focused on is how we prevent this from happening. tomorrow or the next day or any other day,” said Avant after noting and praising the post-shooting actions of Cummings’ principal and staff, the school resource offers and the team of Director Reggie Jackson, head of school operations in Family and Community Engagement.
“Our school community, our South Memphis community, our church community … we all came together because we never ever want to have this type of violence to happen again.”
Stepping to the podium that night, Dr. Michael Moore, senior pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church, said the church is one of the longest adopters of Cummings. Metropolitan is where the students were taken to be picked up by parents and guardians after the lifting of the school lockdown.
“Our students, our families, our communities, especially in South Memphis, need people to step up. And I’m encouraging for more adopters, more people to do what’s necessary to wrap their arms around our students and our families,” said Moore.
New to Memphis, Moore and his family arrived in Memphis in January 2020, a few months before “the pandemic shut everything down.”
“Where we chose to live when we came to Memphis was right here on Walker Avenue. We spent over a year in this neighborhood to find out what the needs of the community were. We spent over a year hearing gunshots in our neighborhood at night, looking at some of the plight of our community, thinking about what we can do to make a change. …” said Moore.
“I’m grateful that we were able to be a beacon of hope during this time. I’m glad that the church was able to be a safe place at such a dangerous time. But my heart is heavy because we had to encounter this situation in the first place. … Pray for the city and this nation that gun violence ends up being something of the past, and not a continued problem in our future.”
The next morning, attorney and former federal prosecutor Linda Harris, who is challenging incumbent Amy Weirich for the Shelby County District Attorney General position, assembled a small group of community supporters in front of the school. Among them was Karen Spencer-McGee, aka “Mama Peaches,” whose son attended Cummings.
Drawing upon the trauma experienced as the granddaughter of one of the striking Sanitation Workers of 1968, she openly worried about the lingering effects of the shooting on students of the school.
“I saw what happened in ’68. We didn’t have the tools then to get the help that we needed.”
She lamented the lack of more of a visible, collective stand that morning to say, “This is absolutely wrong. … Get out here, say something. Madear and papa were out here marching when they weren’t even making shoes to fit Black folks feet. And some kind of way we have lost our voice. We need to wake up. And after you wake up, … stay woke.”
Pausing to give shout outs to individuals and groups “doing the work” in the neighborhood, she said, “But there is so much that can be done .… As a mama who raised a Black boy who made it in this community, I can tell you what is going on here. I know every cut, every so-called gang. … Why y’all scared to address the gang violence here?”
Recalling decisions that shut down old Carver and Southside high schools and the funneling of those students into Hamilton and Booker T. Washington high schools, Spencer-McGee said, “I’m the uncomfortable Negro that said, ‘Look, you know what? They fixing to have a bloodbath in South Memphis with all those gang activities crossing lines …’
“Listen to the Black woman. We know what the hell we are talking about. … Those are our babies … our babies’ friends, our babies’ cousins.’”
Harris was asked if she would be calling upon elected officials to help the schools.
“Yes, but I am going to call on people like Karen Spencer-McGee …. The problem is (that) she is saying that she had identified issues in the community. Who listened? Who dealt with those? We cannot ignore the Karen Spencer-McGees in Memphis because they can help the mayor, they can help the legislators, if you listen.
“That is so important. We must listen to the community. They want to be heard and they want action taken as a result of that. If you ignore what Karen is saying, that’s why we end up where we are today.”
For the last several days, the SCS central office team has been onsite at Cummings, said Ray on Wednesday, including himself among those who must do more, a subject he and the parents talked about.
“They talked about how we can work together. … They talked about being great parents and really doing more. We talked about as a school district doing more. … This superintendent wants to do more. I encourage everyone under the sound of my voice, including the media, we all must do more ….
“The cycle of gun violence must end in our city.”
(This story reflects reports by Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell and photojournalist Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises.)