(NEW YORK) — The moment Melvin Graham learned three Black people were fatally shot in a racially motivated rampage at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Florida, he said his mind raced back to June 17, 2015. That was the day his sister and eight other congregants of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were gunned down by a white supremacist during a Bible study.
As he listened to news reports from Jacksonville describing the Aug. 26 massacre, Graham said his blood began to boil with anger that once again America was being rocked by a heinous hate crime like the one that claimed the life of his sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd.
“Here we go again. That was my reaction. It keeps happening over and over and over again,” Graham told ABC News. “At the beginning, after my sister was executed, it affected me greatly and it still does because I know what these families are going through, I know the process that happens after these killings, the grief and the pain that they’re going through.”
From Charleston to Buffalo, New York, friends and loved ones of those slain in racially motivated killings said they are trying to find ways to support the families in Jacksonville now enduring the same dreadful experience that they have gone through.
“Obviously, you can’t help but to associate what happened in Jacksonville with what happened here in Buffalo,” said Garnell Whitfield Jr., whose 86-year-old mother, Ruth Whitfield, was one of 10 Black people killed by a teenage white supremacist on May 14, 2022, at a Tops supermarket in the predominantly Black east side neighborhood of Buffalo. “So many of the same things that made our community vulnerable made that community of Jacksonville vulnerable and a target.”
‘Standing in Solidarity’
The Rev. Earl Perrin Jr. told ABC News that he is inviting Buffalo residents and leaders of the city to gather at his church, the Delaine Waring AME Church, on Sunday for what he is calling a “Standing in Solidarity” service to show those suffering in Jacksonville that they are not alone.
“We empathize with the victims’ family, friends and community who now have to endure what we went through on May 14 of last year. However, we know that lending support to show love in many forms is the best medicine,” Perrin told ABC News.
Perrin is a retired Buffalo police detective and SWAT team member who worked for 10 years with Aaron Salter Jr., a retired veteran of the Buffalo Police Department, who was killed in the Buffalo massacre.
Salter, who retired from the police force after a 30-year-career, was working at the Tops store as a security guard when he was fatally shot while confronting the 18-year-old gunman, Payton Gendron, who, like the Jacksonville shooter, was wearing body armor and wielding an AR-15-style rifle.
While the Jacksonville gunman, 20-year-old Ryan Christopher Palmeter, died from suicide, Gendron pleaded guilty to 15 state charges — including domestic terrorism motivated by hate, murder and attempted murder — and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“We’re not naive enough to think they are going to stop,” Perrin, president of the Lt. Aaron Salter Memorial Scholarship Foundation, said of the racially motivated attacks. “The whole purpose of domestic terrorism is to make people afraid to go about their daily lives. But we decided as a community after the shooting in Buffalo, that we would do our best to turn a negative into a positive.”
After learning of the Jacksonville shooting, Perrin said his first thought was, “We’ve got to reach out to these people.”
Perrin said a big part of the “blueprint” used in Buffalo to try to heal from the hate was confronting the tragedy as a community and readying mental and health services by getting state and local elected government leaders to secure emergency funds. He said the message he hopes the event will send to the people of Jacksonville is, “We’re not going to allow our loved ones’ deaths to be in vain.”
“That’s the kind of mindset that you have to have,” Perrin said.
‘Do not go quietly into the night’
Whitfield said he plans to attend the event at Perrin’s church.
“I know what they’re going to go through in that community for having been targeted,” said Whitfield, a retired Buffalo fire commissioner.
In the aftermath of the Buffalo massacre, Whitfield, along with his brother, Raymond Whitfield, founded the nonprofit organization, Pursuit of tRuth, in honor of their mother. Their mission, they said, is to fight a current rise in white supremacy across the nation and the whitewashing of African-American history by bringing together groups that are tackling the issues.
In March, the FBI released data showing that hate crimes in the United States spiked by 35% in 2021. The bureau recorded a total of 10,840 hate crime incidents in 2021, up from 8,052 in 2020.
White supremacist propaganda, including the mass distribution of flyers containing hateful language and images, projections on buildings and in-person gatherings, reached a record high in the United States in 2022, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The organization’s yearly assessment of propaganda activity found 6,751 incidents in 2022, the highest number since the ADL began tracking such incidents in 2017. This total includes racist, antisemitic, or anti-LGBTQ content and efforts.
The count represented a 38% increase over the previous year, according to the ADL.
Whitfield said he has a message for those who lost loved ones in the Jacksonville shooting.
“My advice is do not go quietly into the night, to raise their voices and not let the anger, the pain and the hurt of losing their loved ones in such a heinous way determine your path for your future,” he said.
He said he hopes to travel to Jacksonville soon to show his support for the community in person and tell them “to be prayerful as much as possible and don’t be in a hurry to feel better.”
“I’m 15 months out [from the Tops shooting] and I don’t know if I’m ever going to feel better. That’s the God’s honest truth,” Whitfield said. “I continue to cry all the time. I continue to miss my mother, I continue to hate the circumstances under which she was taken from us.”
Similar sentiments were shared by Graham.
“You can’t get over it because it keeps happening. It’s like reopening a wound again and again,” Graham said. “And the last thing you want to do is become numb to it, that it’s a fact of life that it’s going to happen.”
He expressed frustration with federal and local politicians for failing to “step up to the plate” and do something to curb the rise of white supremacy and gun violence. He lashed out at some national leaders who he said are encouraging the rise of white supremacy by criticizing what they refer to as the “woke movement” and “the radical left.” He said such labels are akin to “dog whistles” that provoke violence against minority groups.
“As an African American, as a Black man, I feel like I have a target on me and that target is the color of my skin,” Graham said. “That’s all it takes for someone to kill me, just for being Black. And I can’t change that, I can’t change it for my children, I can’t change it for my grandchildren. No matter what we do, no matter where we go or don’t go, we’re still a target.”
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