‘It changed me’: A year of protest and loss renews meaning of MLK Day

Sharon James lost her son John Heggie III, 30, 2 years ago to the day to gun violence. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Sharon James lost her son John Heggie III, 30, 2 years ago to the day to gun violence. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

For Sharon James, it feels like the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday carries more weight in Philadelphia this year, especially as homicides in the city reached a 30-year high — claiming 499 victims — and young people find themselves increasingly caught in the crossfire.

She remembers King’s birthday growing up in North Philly as a day of unity and service for whole communities. Kids who had the day off from school spent the day volunteering with the community, she recalled.

“Things have changed and even if you try to do anything, people are scared,” James said. “They’re scared people are going to start shooting. We got people going to the corner store … and they’re shooting the kids.”

Across Philadelphia, residents used the MLK holiday to reconcile the traumatic events of the past 12 months. The record year in homicides ravaged Black communities, as did the pandemic. Law enforcement’s violent response to residents protesting police violence and seeing white supremacists storm the capitol took a toll on Black communities. Coming together to fulfill Dr. King’s vision of racial and economic equality is more important than ever, many said.

Derrick Smith is the block captain of the 200 block of N Simpson Street in West Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In Northwest Philadelphia, Michael Brown spent the day leading a food give away and COVID-19 testing event. His inspiration to act came not only from Dr. King’s legacy but also out of the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.

“I watched that man die that day and it changed me,” said Brown of Floyd’s murder caught on video.

He and a group of men in his neighborhood who didn’t know how to process Floyd’s death got together and started giving back to the community. Monday’s event was a continuation of that effort and Brown said he knew of no better way to honor King.

“It wasn’t just about him having a dream but it was also about the equitable distribution of finances so our community could prosper,” he explained.

Colwin Williams and other members of Voices by Choices cleaned 7-year-old Zamar Jones’ memorial on Simpson Street. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

At Treehouse Books in North Philadelphia, Sabriaya Shipley spent the day teaching children about the civil rights movement. She said students recognized the ways law enforcement responded to King’s peaceful protests when watching archival tape.

“Concerns they had were like, ‘Ms. Sabriaya, they’re spraying water like they’re spraying on the Black Lives Matter protests,’” she said. “Or ‘Ms. Sabriaya, there’s dogs there. Oh Ms. Sabriaya, you see the gas they’re throwing, remember they do that gas in that bridge in Philadelphia.’”

Shipley said while King’s legacy of peaceful protest is important, his legacy encompasses so much more that children are not often taught in schools. If there were ever a time to teach people about King’s push for economic justice, which made him a radical at the time, she said, it’s now.

‘We’re coming out to help’

Sharon James lost her son, John Heggie III, in a January 2019 shooting. Monday was the anniversary of his death. Joined by a handful of other mothers who share her experience of losing a child to gun violence, James spent the day keeping her son’s memory alive by sharing his story and pushing for stricter gun laws. They gathered on the West Philadelphia block where gunshots claimed the life of 7-year-old Zamar Jones in August.

Members of the organization Voices by Choices held an event on the Simpson Street block where 7 year-old Zamar Jones was fatally shot in the summer of 2020 for those affected by gun violence on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Though turnout was smaller than anticipated, James said, “People will see this, they will hear it, that we’re coming out to help.”

Tahira Fortune, founder of Voices by Choices, lost a son of her own in a 2017 fatal shooting. She echoed James in thinking the country needed a day for coming together through acts of service and activism after a brutal year.

But Fortune said she processed King’s birthday differently since her son died by virtue of how they’d both been killed: a gun.

Tahira Fortune lost her son Samir Fortune, 18, in 2017 (right). His friend Nassir Dublan, 19, (left) also died due to gun violence. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Fortune said her 18-year-old son Samir Fortune was four months away from graduating high school when his life ended. He loved football, basketball, and music. It’s not a perfect comparison, she explained – Samir was just starting his adult life at the time of his fatal shooting — but both men were robbed of their full potential because someone pulled a trigger.

“I’m a mother and I’m out here fighting against gun violence and it’s just very hard to explain,” Tahira said. “This day is very important because you want [Dr. King’s] legacy to live on.”

By performing acts of service and fighting for stricter gun laws, Fortune said she’s keeping her son’s legacy alive, too.

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