Two years after her 17-year-old son Trayvon Martin was killed—and nine months after George Zimmerman, the man who shot him was acquitted—Sybrina Fulton had a dream.
“It was so vivid that I woke up in the middle of the night and wrote everything down,” she says. In that dream, she saw a room full of women, all wearing her favorite color purple—laughing, crying, and embracing one another. The Circle of Mothers, a retreat for women who have lost a child to gun violence, was born.
“When I went through my journey, there was no sorority of mothers who said, ‘We’re here to support you. To guide you,” Fulton says. “My dream had a purpose: not only to help me heal, but to help other mothers heal as well.”
The first Circle of Mothers took place in Miami, where Fulton lives, on May 16, 2014, the weekend after Mother’s Day. Sixty mothers—from all over the United States, but primarily from the Miami area, attended. She chose that weekend on purpose. “Other than the anniversary of your child being killed, Mother’s Day is one of the hardest days,” Fulton says, adding. “And birthdays. They’re hard, too.”
This is a pain that any mother who has lost a child can relate to—including she has since passed away. In her remarks to the group, she said: “This is the first time I’ve ever been in the presence of people who are my peers.”, the mother of the late rapper . She spoke of that pain at the first Circle of Mothers event, where she was keynote speaker. It had been 18 years since her son had died—and
Fulton, and likely every other mother in that room, understood what she meant. “I felt so alone after Trayvon passed,” Fulton says. “Even though people had been shot and killed before, you do feel like you are the only one going through that pain.” The point of Circle of Mothers is to help dissipate that pain and unburden those mothers who carry it with them—too often concealed, as Shakur Davis said, “with a smile, even though their hearts are fractured forever more.”
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This May 18 , more than 100 mothers—40 veterans, 60 first timers—will gather for the fifth annual retreat. The Trayvon Martin Foundation, an organization that Fulton and Tracy Davis, Trayvon’s father, set up in the wake of his death, pays for everyone to attend. That includes flights and hotel rooms for those mothers who come from out of state, and meals, workshops, glam sessions, and personalized swag bags for everyone who attends.
Through her advocacy work—for gun law reform and racial equity—Fulton has met many other moms whose personal tragedies also became national news, including the mothers of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Hadiya Pendleton, Dontre Hamilton, and Oscar Grant, all of whom have all been to the Circle of Mothers. So has Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner. Even though he was not killed with a gun, his dying words, “I can’t breathe,” became a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement, which Trayvon’s death inspired. Fulton also invited local moms she has met or read about—their cases may not be as “high profile” but their pain is the same.
Fulton dreamt of these mothers before she had ever met them. “I’m not just an organizer. I am a participant,” Fulton says. “I needed this gathering. And I knew they did too—who best knows what a bereft mom needs?”
Lucy McBath agrees. She met Fulton in 2013, a year after her son, Jordan Davis, was shot while listening to music in his car in the parking lot of a convenience store in Jacksonville, Florida. Michael Dunn was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. “Sybrina and I were both traveling around the country, talking about our children’s murders,” McBath says. “We had experienced the same tragedies and were living the same life, publicly in the media. It was so nice to have someone that I could talk to.”
McBath attended two Circle of Mother retreats, first in 2015 and again in 2016 when Hillary Clinton came to address the group and advocate for gun reform. “So many people say, ‘I cannot imagine how you feel,’” McBath says. “To be around women who know exactly how you feel is healing.” One of the most poignant moments for her was when each mother was asked to sit in a circle and hold an 8×10 photo of her child. “We were invited to say something to our child, as if he was there in the room,” McBath recalls. “To be able to verbalize what I had been holding since Jordan’s death—how I miss him, how I love him—in a room full of women who would not judge me was a gift.”
The retreat is not all tears, though. “Sybrina provides a lot of moments for us to have self-care and love,” McBath says. This is important to Fulton, as she knows that she is asking mothers to open themselves up emotionally. “They know it is work—who wants to go someplace when you know you are going to be on the operating table?” she says. “You have to realize that it hurts, and then you have to address the hurt.” Since mothers are known to put everyone first, Fulton makes sure this weekend puts them first. “The first year, we did a spa treatment,” Fulton says. “Now we do personalized swag bags and hair and make up sessions. The moms love that.”
Queen Brown came to the first retreat, and has been back every year since. She can always spot the first-time mothers. “Last year, I saw one in tears in the lobby of the hotel,” she says. “They’re nervous, and scared. But I can tell them that they start the weekend as a victim and leave a survivor.” McBath has been twice and considers herself another veteran mom—“the new mothers may have just experienced their loss only months earlier,” she says. “That we can give them guidance because we are further along in our healing is empowering.”
Brown lost her son, Eviton, in 2006. He was 24 years old and had just moved back home, in Miami, to be closer to his girlfriend and their one-year-old daughter. “We had a long conversation the night he died,” she recalls. “I took out a legal pad and a pen and I said, ‘What is your plan? What do you want to be doing one year from today?’”
It was 4:44 P.M. and she had to run to the bank before it closed. When she returned home, her son was gone. She did not know then that he had hopped into a car with his cousin, or that his cousin’s girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend had shot a dozen bullets into that car. Or that one of those bullets had hit her son. “When I got the autopsy report, I learned that my son’s death was 59 minutes after he and I had that conversation,” she says. “The bullet pierced his lung. He died instantly.” Brown still has the legal pad that her son last held before he died. “It’s blank,” she says. “He never got a chance to write down his plans.”
Eviton’s death was the 200th homicide in Florida that year, and Brown learned in the worst way imaginable that homicide was the leading killer of black men ages 18 to 35. She became an activist, writing a column in her local paper and launching her own radio show. But before that, she recalls the devastating loneliness of this particular loss. “My son was killed in October. I tried to do a dinner with friends and family in November but cried through the entire thing,” she says. “And then I later learned that I was not invited to a Christmas dinner because I made other people uncomfortable.”
This is precisely why she has been to every Circle of Mothers since the first in 2014. “We are grieving moms. We represent sadness—no one wants to be around us,” she says. “So when I got the invitation from Sybrina, I called and asked, ‘Is this real?’ I was blown away!”
During that first retreat, among many of the poignant moments, there was one where the mothers made two lines facing one another and reached into the space between them. One by one, each woman walked through, held up by the women surrounding them. Fulton walked through as well. As Shakur Davis said in her speech that same weekend, “When I heard about Trayvon’s death, the worst part was seeing his mama…a regal and elegant woman, no reason for you to have to have that pain.”
This was one way to move through it, with the other mothers embracing each other along the way.
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It is very emotional, which was why Carr, Eric Garner’s mother, was hesitant about coming to the event at first. “I did not know what to expect,” she says. “But when I got there, I felt the warmth and the connection, and that feeling that you were not alone in this.”
She has since been back twice, because it allows her to remember her child for who he was—not the news bulletins, or the #icantbreathe hashtag he became associated with. “We don’t only want to talk the death of our child,” says Carr. “We talk about the life of our child. Everyone knows about the tragedy. I want to talk about who our children really were.”
Eric, she says, was a big teddy bear who doted on his mother. Especially on Mother’s Day. He never gave her flowers or candy, but instead made grand gestures. One year it was a denim suit. The next, a necklace that said “Number One Mom” on it. “I kept it in the box,” she says. “And he’d say, ‘Why don’t you wear it? I’d answer, ‘It’s too precious! I don’t want to lose it.’”
That necklace, she says, is still in the box, and whenever anyone comes to visit, she takes it out. “I say, this is who my son was,” she explains.
At the retreat, these mothers can grieve and celebrate their children together. They can also strategize how to make the most of their losses. “We get girded up,” McBath says. “Sybrina says, ‘Find what best way to serve your community. Don’t let your tragedy define you.’”
McBath decided to do that by running for congress in Georgia’s sixth district, citing the Parkland shooting as the catalyst. “Those kids were the same age as Jordan was when he was murdered,” she says. “They represent my son—and I’m going to do whatever I can to help them.”
That is the only reason she is missing the Circle of Mothers this year—she’s out campaigning for, among other things, stronger gun laws. The loss of a child to gun violence is something no mother wants to bond over—and yet each is grateful to have that bond. As Shakur Davis also said, “Sybrina has given us an agenda: to create circles wherever we live. Circles of Mothers. Because next week, there is going to be a phone call. Another child will be taken. We don’t want her to be alone.”