People gathered on Sunday morning outside of the Makeda’s Homemade Butter Cookies storefront that has become a makeshift memorial site for Young Dolph after he was killed there last week. Photo by Brandon Dill for MLK50

Drivers stop in the turn lane on Airways Boulevard to gaze at the bundles of balloons, flowers, candles, posters and stuffed animals under the sign for Makeda’s Homemade Butter Cookies.

On the wooden boards covering the shop’s windows, spray-painted messages  — from fans as close as the South Memphis neighborhood and as far as Texas — signal love for a music artist and local hero — Young Dolph.

On Monday morning, Dominique Brown, from San Antonio, Texas, parked his semi in the corner of the Family Dollar parking lot next door to Makeda’s. Brown, 34, said the shop was only about a 30-minute detour on his way back to Texas after delivering a trailer.

“I had a load coming out this way, so I thought I’d stop by to pay my respects,” Brown said.

He reflected on solutions to the gun violence that killed one of his favorite rappers on Wednesday. Having been incarcerated himself, Brown said he’s familiar with the violence of the streets but unsure of the answer to the complex problem of gun violence. However, he’s sure of what would make things easier for low-income communities.

“More resources, that’s the main thing,” Brown said.

The search is still on for two gunmen suspected of killing the rapper, whose real name was Adolph Thornton, Jr., inside Makeda’s, blocks away from his home neighborhood of Castalia. The independent artist has been celebrated for regularly giving back to Memphis’ low-income schools and neighborhoods.

Artists and associates of Paper Route Empire, the record label Young Dolph created, continued his annual turkey giveaway despite his death.

Since Young Dolph’s death nearly a week ago, community groups across Memphis have discussed responses to gun violence in the wake of the killing of the Memphis icon.

The NAACP Memphis Branch held a special meeting Monday to identify immediate, short-term and long-term solutions to the problem. Representatives from community organizations exchanged ideas on the roots of the problem and how to address it. Their ideas gathered around themes such as trauma, healthy families — and poverty.

Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner, who is also NAACP president, opened the virtual meeting and set the agenda for its more than 130 attendees.

Young Dolph in 2019. Photo by Brandon Dill. 

“The naysayers have already said, ‘What good would this do? Why are we having another meeting?’ I guess the alternative would be to do nothing. Either we meet to try to figure out solutions or we say ‘what’s the point?’ … and do nothing,” Turner said.

“I don’t think that’s something we want to do. Too much is at stake — too much is on the line.” 

Turner and other attendees said the meeting would not be the last on gun violence and that discussions will result in concrete action. Turner said he and others will analyze the ideas generated by the conversation and propose steps to be discussed in a meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 16.

The meeting included representatives from Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope, Memphis Artists for Change, Families Matter, Heal the Hood, Black Urban Males, Legacy of Legends CDC, the Memphis Christian Pastors Network, and Counselors Not Cops.

Some suggested using education to give kids tools to handle and heal from trauma and conflict.

The virtual town hall on Monday evening was hosted by the NAACP Memphis Branch. Van Turner, speaking in this screenshot, is the president.

This includes measures such as reducing the number of police officers in schools, substantially increasing the number of school counselors and adding conflict resolution lessons.

Trauma was central to comments by Charlie Caswell, executive director of Legacy of Legends CDC, a Memphis-based community development corporation focused on building community by preventing traumatic experiences for Memphis’ children, many of whom are Black and live in low-income households.

Nearly 22% of Memphians live in poverty, according to census data from the 2020 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet, compiled and released by Elena Delavega, associate professor of social work at the University of Memphis, and Gregory M. Blumenthal of GMBS Consulting. The Memphis poverty rate is more than double the nation’s 2019 poverty rate of 10.5%. Among Black Memphians, 26% live below the poverty line compared to slightly more than 9% of white Memphians.

Caswell said communities must be informed about the role trauma plays in marginalized communities and that includes trauma stemming from Black people’s historical oppression.

“When we take these children, I don’t care how many programs we put them in, if we return them back to toxic environments — it’s like taking a tree that is dying, uprooting it and replanting it back into the same toxic ground and expecting a different result,” Caswell said.

Keeping families together

Some attendees see the roots of crime and violence in broken family structures, with one or both parents being absent or otherwise unable to give their children necessary attention. Measures pitched to correct this included supporting positive male role models and criminal justice reform.

“We want to support these kids before it turns to violence,” said the Rev. Ayanna Watkins, lead organizer and executive director of the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope.

She said criminal justice reform could keep families together. Reforms mentioned included a robust unit for reviewing wrongful incarcerations, bail reform and not trying children as adults.

“A lot of times parents aren’t home, caregivers aren’t home because they’re being held (in jail) at 201 (Poplar) just because they can’t post bail, not because they’ve even had a chance to go to court yet,” Watkins said. “(It’s) just making sure we’re keeping as few people incarcerated as possible.”

Some representatives stressed the importance of family structures.

“So much of the chaos that we see in the streets of Memphis … has to do with fathers not being in their rightful place within their children’s lives,” said Carol Jackson, executive director of Families Matter, a faith-based organization focused on building healthy family relationships.

The Rev. Ivory Jackson, who works with Families Matter, added that fathers can keep boys from turning to gangs for male role models.

“They haven’t really been validated,” Jackson said. “They have no sense of where they want to go in life, so we’re teaching those principles of manhood.”

Donavan Kilgore-Russell, of the Black Urban Males organization, said, “being a Black male is really hard and tough out here.” He spoke about his experience being incarcerated only a week ago, and said Young Dolph was his friend and helped him get out.

Kilgore-Russell wants to honor Young Dolph’s legacy by being present in the community,  connecting with people younger than him and teaching them the harms of gun violence while exposing them to new productive activities and interests, he told the group.

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However, some people see Memphis’ high levels of poverty as the underlying cause of gun violence and that many programs are necessary Band-Aids but not the final solution.

“We neglected our own people. We made it, we left, we abandoned, we walked away. Some kind of way, we have to go back and gain the trust of the people we abandoned,” said the Rev. James Kirkwood, pastor of Ambassadors for Christ Fellowship Church, former police officer and chairman of the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board. “We have to be honest about that.”

Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer agreed with Kirkwood’s point and said gun violence is another result of historical and ongoing divestment from Black communities. The problem will worsen so long as people can’t meet their basic needs, she said.

“I don’t believe that we can solve gun violence without solving the economic crisis at hand,” Sawyer said. “Too many people are on the streets, too many people are hungry and unless we do something about that, we’re going to continue to have these conversations.”

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com


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