Meredith Coleman McGee can close her eyes and see the Jackson, Miss., of 1976. She was 13 then, and she recalls having the best childhood growing up in Mississippi’s capital city. She could walk down the street with friends and sing. They would have wars where they threw pine cones at each other.
People on the street would go to a neighbor’s house and dance in the driveway. She could walk to a friend’s house and eat. There were no bad roads or potholes. And she remembers no vacant or dilapidated houses in west or north Jackson.
“We had a village. We were taking care of our own. But when crack came, our entire way of life changed, and we are still dealing with the aftermath of the crack cocaine epidemic,” McGee says at the “Stand Up Speak Up: Rally 4 Peace” she organized in Jackson on May 6.
The crack era exploded in the U.S. from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, devastating many cities, including Jackson. McGee says safety and morality had left the community, and gang activity and murder increased. Many Black men were lost to violence in the 1990s.
McGee is speaking to a crowd of about 26 people under the pavilion at Parham Bridges’ playground in northeast Jackson, explaining why she decided to rally against violence. The increasing number of people dying from gun violence in the capital city—which is suffering record homicide rates, with 43 since 2021 began—had McGee stressed and crying. So the chairwoman of Community Library Mississippi spoke to her board and asked if they would host a rally to engage the community around violence prevention.
The event organizer tells those gathered that three Black men are killed daily in this country in police encounters and 100 people die every day from gun violence, many of them Black men. Black Americans are 10 times more likely than white Americans to die by gun homicide, which is widespread in racially segregated neighborhoods with increased rates of poverty.
“There is no way that we as a community cannot stand up and speak out against the genocide of the Black male. My daddy is a Black male. My husband is a Black male. We got to end this genocide especially of the Black male. It’s just terrible,” she exclaims to the crowd.
This rally is one of three scheduled for the rest of May and June with the next on May 22 at Grove Park near Lake Hico.
“We want to see if we could engage the community and also develop some groups of people that would take some extra steps later. We’re just going to listen to the voices of the community,” McGee explains.
The Community Library Mississippi chairwoman points to a disinvestment in Black communities. There are no working bathrooms at the parks or job opportunities for young people, she says. Even now, the Community Library Mississippi is working to turn vacant houses into community libraries.
“Our problems are so complicated, and it’s going to take so much to get back to 1976. It’s going to take all hands on deck (and) more unity to get us back towards a better place,” McGee tells the crowd.
‘The Pain, The Fear, The Joy’
Soon, Ward 3 City Council candidate Patricia Williams, who is running as an independent, builds on McGee’s statements by acknowledging that there is also a genocide on young Black women.
“These rallies are helpful because people find it hard to hurt you if they know you. We have not been together for a long time as a people, as a community, as a city. I believe this is a good start. We should rally for peace every chance we get,” Williams urges.
Bettye Tyler, director and founder of Marvellous Works, attended the May 6 prayer rally downtown at the Jackson Police Department and spoke to the importance of police officers engaging with the community. She empathizes with victims of violence because she lost her nephew to gun violence last year, she told the audience.
“Working in the field of substance abuse and mental health, you hear all sorts of stories. I got to the place where I sit on the edge of my seat, paralyzed with fear with some of the stories that you can only imagine [are] affecting people’s lives,” Tyler says.
Tonjula Mason-Shelby lost her son, Kimandra Mason, to gun violence on April 12, 2017. He was shot multiple times in his vehicle. Police arrested DMarco Q. Jones and charged him with murder, though they suspected four men were involved in the killing.
Jones’ bail was set at $1 million and his case was transferred to Hinds County Court. Today, he posted bail and has yet to be indicted by a grand jury. It is unclear if the Hinds County District Attorney is still on the case.
Mason-Shelby says she is enthusiastic about the community conversation, but she wants more than just putting more police officers on the street or reform. She wants accountability because without it, she says, those who do wrong will continue to do wrong.
“We need to show up at these gun rallies and let them know you need to have background checks. If someone has mental disabilities, they don’t need to have a gun in their hands because they’re judgment is impaired,” Mason-Shelby says.
“I want to know what the judges are doing because the officers can arrest them. They can bring them into the judicial system, but what happens when they get there?”
K’leita Campbell, an independent marketing director and founder of SMILE, said she knows a lot of young men who live and work in Jackson, and she always tries to instill in them to do positive things.
“I am inspired to be here because I am a mother who has a male son who lives in Jackson. I know he gets on my nerve half the time, but I do breathe a sigh of relief when I know he’s home safely every night,” Campbell says.
Her husband, Coach Andrew Campbell, tells the crowd that crime has different faces, those of the victims and those of the survivors. He emphasizes that if the community doesn’t stand up and make noise throughout the city, they won’t see any results.
“These stories are really good because it gives us an opportunity to see, feel the pain, feel the fear, feel the joy and adoration that people have gotten through to overcome this,” he says. “We need to hear so we can come back and anything that we can do to help, let us know.”
‘Better Men Society’
In 2000, Robert Davis founded The Better Men Society, a nonprofit organization that aims to lend aid to the poverty-stricken areas of the city where resources are limited. They feed the homeless, visit the sick, pray with the elderly, clean up dilapidated properties, and visit schools and jails for mentorship, the founder says.
“We are an organization that tries to be tangible in the community. We say at the Better Men’s Society to be a man, you have to see a man,” Davis tells the audience.
The mentor says he connects with other young Black men because he was one of them once. They’re not going through anything that he hasn’t gone through before, and he can tell them change is possible because he changed.
“I stand here as a reformed everything. Any negative title that you can put on a young man, I probably had that title over my head years ago. I could not stand here unless God had changed me first,” Davis says.
“I stand here as a business owner. I stand here as a minister and motivational speaker. I am a licensed general contractor. I create things instead of destroy things now.”
Davis says the men in his program hold various titles from doctors and police officers to ministers or fathers. The Better Men Society is a collective of men who are tired of seeing young men navigate life without a map or a mentor, he adds.
“Being a man isn’t just something you can wake up in the morning and know how to do. Being a man is like a location, and you can’t even find how to get there without somebody taking you there by the hand,” Davis tells the crowd.
Davis says there is more than one answer to solving the problem of gun violence and as a collective, the people of Jackson need to confront this problem from every avenue.
“As a community and a village, we need to be answering this problem and attacking this problem with everything that we have, with many different answers,” he advises.
Growing up in the church, Davis says he played the drums. With the amount of drummers, piano players and guitar players he knows, none of them have ever shot anyone. One of the problems he sees with the young men in the city is that they don’t know how to do anything, or they haven’t been exposed to anything they could do to create.
“When you have an instrument in your hand, there is no room for a gun. They can’t shoot guns with paint brushes in their hands,” he added.
“Most of these young men have never created anything, and the only thing they’ve seen is examples of how to destroy. But, we can just get them and show them that the beauty of God is an amazing thing,” Davis urges.
LaRonda Coleman closes the rally with a song that she wrote and recorded at the end of last year. She says that she asked God what she could do to help, and he put it in her spirit to use her gift of singing to create “Jacktown Love”.
“The first song I’ve ever written I’m talking about my city because I felt so overwhelmed with compassion that I just want my city to love again,” Coleman says.
The songwriter believes the main component that is missing in our city and our homes is love. If love is returned, things will begin to change.
“That’s what gets me going. It’s time to step out. If we’re doing all these things and not showing we’ve been raised right as adults, what do we think our children are going to do? How will their lives be when they’re our age, if they can get to that age?” the singer asks.
“Two months quarantine, ‘bout to lose my mind
Watching updates everybody, then I realized
Lord knows it wasn’t doing me good, letting all disturb my peace
Gotta be something better than this, man something hit these streets”
“Jacktown Love, we’ve given it up,
Jacktown Love, we’ve given it up,
Jacktown Love, we’ve given it up,
Jacktown Love, we’ve given it up”
The next “Stand Up & Speak Up: Rally 4 Peace” will take place Saturday, May 22, from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Grove Park, at 4126 Parkway Ave. in Jackson. For more information about the rallies, email event organizer Meredith Coleman McGee at [email protected] or Real Institute of Learning organizer Baba A. Lukata Chikuyu at [email protected].