Memphis students mourn gun violence in own communities as they walk out during national protest

T’erika Miller listed off names and ages of students who have been killed by gun violence in her community during a walkout organized by Memphis students — including the names of some of her classmates.

T’erika Miller spoke about how gun violence had affected her as a student in Frayser. (Caroline Bauman)

“It is depressing to see today’s youth ages 18 and younger lose life so early,” T’erika, 17, told the crowd of about 100 of her classmates. “I could have wrote about two pages of names. So many bright futures and precious lives gone.”

Martin Luther King Preparatory, T’erika’s school, was one of more than 20 Memphis-area schools that staged walkouts Thursday as part of a larger national movement. The walkouts were a response to the tragic Parkland, Florida, school shooting in February and also honored the 19th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.

Kendashia Smith, one of the student organizers at MLK Prep, said they wanted the focus of their walkout to be on the gun violence they see in their neighborhood of Frayser. During the hourlong walkout, speakers called for their fellow students to become advocates, reach out to local officials, and actively fight gun violence in their own community.

From 2006 to 2015, more than 25,000 Memphians were shot or shot at, according to a special report from The Commercial Appeal. Frayser is one of the neighborhoods of concentrated shootings, meaning many of the students walking out on Thursday had grown up with a personal connection to gun violence.

“It hurt me to hear the names and ages of people who have been killed — people from 18 to 2 years old,” said Smith, 17, a senior. “We hear about [a killing], and then it fades, and then there’s another… We can’t accept that anymore. We have to believe the violence can stop.”

Smith said the administration at MLK Prep had been very supportive of the demonstration, and even moved around state testing so the students could leave class without missing exams. Some teachers at the high school worked with Facing History and Ourselves, an education group that trains teachers, to develop lesson plans on student activism ahead of the event. Student leaders also worked with Campaign for School Equity, a local student advocacy group, to make the walkout happen.

“One of the most powerful parts of this has been connecting what’s happening nationally, this national movement against guns, to our own community,” Smith said. “We’ve talked about it in our classrooms. Now, we get to talk about it on a bigger stage and ask: ‘We are currently living with gun violence. What can we do to change that?’”

Student organizers listed off some specific changes they hope their school makes in the coming months, including more training for teachers and students, as well as a call that the administration fights against any legislation that would arm teachers. Earlier this month, a bill that would have opened the door to arming some Tennessee teachers died after debate about whether educators with handguns would actually make students safer.

“If someone were to bring a gun on campus, teachers get some training for that, but student don’t know what to do,” Smith said. “But we do live in a highly violent community — we have experienced this. We need help on how to handle that outside of school.”

Kendashia Smith was one of the student organizers at MLK Prep. (Caroline Bauman)

At other schools throughout Shelby County, students also crafted solutions for gun violence and school safety via the social media hashtag #youthsolutions901. Savanah Thompson, one of the student organizers at White Station High School, said they will take these recommendations to the Shelby County School board meeting on April 24.

View below more images from the MLK Prep walkout:

(Caroline Bauman)
(Caroline Bauman)
(Caroline Bauman)