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How mothers in America have turned their grief and despair into political action


On April 26, a group of mothers gathered in Chicago, Illinois to hold a vigil for families who have lost loved ones to police violence in the city. These women — including Dorothy Holmes, the mother of Ronald Johnson, who was shot and killed by Chicago Police in 2014 — demanded police accountability. The women pointed out the string of violations by the Chicago Police Department and called to defund the police.

In the most difficult circumstances — especially after experiencing great personal loss — mothers often turn their grief and despair into political action.

The activism of these women in 2021 follows in the footsteps of many mothers who came before them, including Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955. In the aftermath of her son’s tragic death, Till-Mobley became one of the leading voices demanding justice and calling for an end to state-sanctioned violence in the United States.

Much like Till-Mobley, many of today’s activist-mothers are working to bring about policy changes to improve the lives of all Americans, especially marginalized groups.

A few weeks before the April Chicago vigil, Katie Wright, the mother of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, who was fatally shot by a veteran police officer during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, called for police accountability at a press conference. It was one of several public appearances that week as Wright sought to bring greater national awareness to the tragic shooting of her son.

Mother’s Day is the opportune moment to acknowledge the vital role mothers play in shaping American politics. Because throughout history, and in the most difficult circumstances — especially after experiencing great personal loss — mothers have often turned their grief and despair into political action.

This is reflected in the mass political organizing of Mothers of the Movement, a group of Black mothers whose sons and daughters have been killed by police officers or by gun violence. This group, which includes Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, Lezley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, have been working tirelessly to push for legislation to fundamentally change American policing.

In the aftermath of her son’s death, Carr emerged as one of the leading voices in support of banning police chokeholds. Her efforts, combined with broad support from other activists and public officials in New York, led to the passage of the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act in June 2020. More recently, Carr met with congressional leaders on April 29 to discuss the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the House of Representatives in March.

Mother’s Day is the opportune moment to acknowledge the vital role mothers play in shaping American politics.

Other Mothers of the Movement have been actively involved in the ongoing fight for police reform, several turning to electoral politics in the process. Sybrina Fulton and Lezley McSpadden have run for public office in recent years — both campaigning on wide-ranging police reform agendas.

While Fulton and McSpadden were unsuccessful in their runs, they have not wavered in their efforts to address police violence and continue to demand tangible changes in policing. They have also worked to provide support for other mothers; in 2014, Fulton established the Circle of Mothers, an annual retreat to empower women and help them heal after losing a child to gun violence.

Held during Mother’s Day weekend, the first Circle of Mothers gathering brought together 60 mothers from various parts of the country. Since 2014, the initiative has grown to hundreds of women each year, including, at one point, Afeni Shakur Davis (who passed away in 2016), the mother of the late rapper Tupac Shakur, and many notable Mothers of the Movement.

In 2014, McSpadden began organizing the “Rainbow of Mothers Gala,” an annual foundation fundraiser for mothers who have lost children to violence. The annual gala is one of several initiatives led by McSpadden’s program — part of the Michael O.D. Brown We Love Our Sons and Daughters Foundation, which was established in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting. The program provides broad support and resources for mothers, including counseling and legal advice.

After losing her 17-year-old son Jordan Davis to gun violence in 2012, Lucy McBath, one of the Mothers of the Movement, ran for Congress in 2017. In 2018, she was elected as the first Democratic candidate in the United States House of Representatives to represent Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Now in her second term, McBath works closely with Moms Demand Action, a grassroots movement “fighting for public safety measures that can protect people from gun violence.”

After losing her 17-year-old son Jordan Davis to gun violence in 2012, Lucy McBath, one of the Mothers of the Movement, ran for Congress in 2017.

Established in 2012 by Shannon Watts, a mother of five, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, Moms Demand Action quickly evolved from a small group of Watts’ close friends on social media to a national organization with an estimated 6 million supporters. When she received a call from Watts in 2013, McBath recalled feeling that she had found her calling. “I wanted to be speaking about violence prevention,” she told journalist Jamilah King for Mother Jones. “I wanted to be challenging our legislators and our civil leaders.”

McBath’s remarks capture the motivations of mothers across the country who are on the forefront of political movements in the United States. This is true for Lisa Espinosa, a Latina mother whose 26-year-old son Raymond Pantoja was killed by gun violence in 2016.

Determined to ensure that “his death would not be in vain,” Espinosa became actively involved in Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the United States (Moms Demand Action is now part of Everytown’s network). During the 2020 presidential elections, she joined forces with other activists in the organization in support of then presidential candidate Joe Biden, citing his commitment to gun reform.

Mothers, whether biological mothers, stepmothers, adoptive mothers and those who perform a variety of motherly responsibilities in their communities, have proved to be one of the most powerful political groups in the United States.

As we celebrate mothers this weekend for the many ways they enrich their families and communities, may we never lose sight of how mothers are also shaping the American political landscape and working to create a safer and more equitable society.

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