One of the most showstopping moments at the 2014 Essence Festival occurred when Sybrina Fulton, Nicole Paultre Bell and Kadiatou Diallo took to the Superdome stage to surprise National Action Network's Reverend Al Sharpton for his twentieth Festival appearance. Now, we catch up with these three courageous mothers who share their stories on surviving the aftermath of horrific violence and coping with unthinkable losses.
When someone you love is senselessly shot dead, you weep and rage and weep some more. When you are Kadiatou Diallo, Nicole Paultre Bell or Sybrina Fulton, you turn that stupefying, nonstop pain and angst into action. The New York Police Department's slayings of Amadou Diallo, 23, in 1999 and Sean Bell, 23, in 2006, and a Florida neighborhood watchman's killing of Trayvon Martin, 17, in 2012, have brought this trio of women heart-rending notoriety. But Diallo and Fulton, mothers of Amadou and Trayvon, respectively, and Paultre Bell, Sean's widow and mother of his two daughters, are using their incidental (if sometimes uncomfortable) celebrity to commemorate their loved ones and to employ their hopes, dreams and tragic deaths as forces of change.
Each woman has launched a successful foundation that addresses tangled subjects like police brutality and Stand Your Ground laws, and delivers services such as providing burial clothes for those who die violently and whose families cannot afford funeral attire. They're doing social justice work that includes schooling youth about their civil rights, enrolling them in sports and cultural arts programs and granting college scholarships.
Rev. Al Sharpton, the MSNBC host, activist and longtime friend and supporter of the women, says they've "had to bear the pain" of these deaths and now they are working to correct problems of police misconduct and racial profiling.
"And they bore it with dignity, despite their pain, and with an integrity that did not compromise the nobility of their "[loved ones],"" Sharpton adds. "They've been there, standing shoulder to shoulder in the valleys and at the marches. They're symbols of a movement whose time has come."
Children: Trayvon Martin and Jahvaris Fulton, 24
Occupation: Founder and board member of The Trayvon Martin Foundation
How we came to know her: On February 26, 2012, after buying snacks at a store near his father's home, her son Trayvon Martin was stalked and shot in the head and killed by George Zimmerman. Later, a six-woman Florida jury ruled that Zimmerman was not guilty of any crime against the teenager.
What people should know about Trayvon: He was smart, funny, full of energy, and had dreams of a solid adulthood. "Now, he's in history books," his mother says.
How she copes: Fulton, a former housing agency administrator, says of losing Trayvon: "I asked my pastor what I had to do to keep from going crazy. He told me that all of this… would show me just how strong I already was. I did go to grief counseling. And even prior to Trayvon's murder, my faith was very strong. My connection to family was very strong. I've got friends I've known since sixth grade. And because of all of that, I have been able to continue on this journey of helping others. The more I help other mothers, the more it helps me to heal and to stay on this journey for both of my boys."
How she's forging ahead: Fulton, unyielding in the pursuit of justice for her slain son, is working to build the Trayvon Martin Foundation's endowment and to offer a variety of civil services through the group. This past May, she launched the Circle of Mothers, a weekend retreat in Miami for 50 moms whose children died violently. In that inaugural circle life coaches helped them problem-solve, clarify their futures and strategize on how to transform grief into a tool for aiding others and for creating a less violent society. "For me, it was a breakthrough," Fulton reflects. "In the past two years I had not laughed so much, and probably not cried so much."
The foundation's mission: To promote a just, violence-free society by expanding the organization's programs to other cities and towns across the country. Initiatives such as Peace Walk and Peace Talk, which brings together young people, community leaders, lawmakers and law enforcement, help foster more equable relations between police officers and the communities they serve.
What's next: Fulton is part of a Florida coalition of legislators, law enforcement officials and citizens angling to repeal the Stand Your Ground law, which allows those who believe they are being physically threatened to protect themselves with deadly force. Such laws exist in 22 other states.
How you can help: Donate via trayvonmartinfoundation.org.
Nicole Paultre Bell
Home: Far Rockaway, New York
Children: Jada Bell, 12; Jordyn Bell, 8; Annabelle Summer, 1
Occupation: Founder and president of When It's Real It's Forever (WIRIF), a justice- and youth-focused organization
How we came to know her: Her high school sweetheart and fiancé Sean Bell, 23, died in a barrage of 50 police bullets outside a nightclub on the eve of the couple's wedding day. He had been celebrating the pending nuptials at his bachelor party with two of his friends, who were seriously injured but survived the shooting. Though the unarmed Bell, father of Paultre Bell's two eldest daughters, was not found to have committed any crime, a judge still acquitted the three officers of all charges including manslaughter and reckless endangerment.
What people should know about Sean: He was an athlete and a dedicated student who earned higher grades than did bookworm Nicole during their high school years, recalls Paultre Bell. He also was the consummate provider. "Sean took the word family so seriously. He wanted a huge family," she says.
How she copes: "When I think of how far I have come, I clearly see that my daughters are the ones who grounded me through the trials and tribulations and the depression. They were the light at the end of the tunnel. But for a long time after Sean died I didn't see any happiness at all," says Paultre Bell. "I depended on family to get me up in the morning, to open the blinds and to change the baby's diapers." With blessings from her family and Sean's, she says she permitted herself to add another chapter to her private life. Paultre Bell recently married a former college classmate. Her husband, and father to their 1-year-old daughter, showers Paultre Bell and her girls with love, shares in her activism and supports her in the community-focused work born of that 2006 tragedy.
How she's forging ahead: Paultre Bell says she surrounds herself with "faith-bearing women." Ten of them meet monthly in her home to socialize and to support one another's various personal and professional endeavors.
The foundation's mission: WIRIF aims to reduce the incidences of tragic encounters between innocent people and the police, to inform all citizens of their rights regarding police interaction and the legal system, and to promote positive youth development through sports leagues, music and other cultural arts programs.
What's next: Paultre Bell will host an annual luncheon honoring everyday women who have recovered from a loss, whether it be a battle with cancer or a corporate pink slip. She's enrolled in a pre-law program at St. John's University Law School. She hopes to practice civil rights law.
How you can help: "I never thought in a million years my life would turn out like this." If you live in the New York City area, consider enrolling your child in a WIRIF program. The organization also accepts donations of funds, in-kind services and/ or office space in that area. "Sean's legacy has become one of perseverance for the Black community," Paultre Bell says. "His legacy involves the struggle of young Blacks in urban communities, shining a light on the overuse of [police] force, crying out to the world and telling us we have to do something about that." For more information, visit whenitsrealitsforever.org.
Home: Gaithersburg, Maryland
Children: Amadou Diallo; Laouratou Diallo, 36; Ibrahim Diallo, 32; Abdoul Diallo, 31
Occupation: Founder and president of the Amadou Diallo Foundation, Inc.
How we came to know her: Kadiatou's son Amadou was killed in a firestorm of 41 bullets fired by four White NYPD officers as he stood unarmed in the vestibule of his apartment building on February 4, 1999. The cops mistook him for a rape suspect, and his wallet for a gun. "I was outraged, bewildered, brokenhearted—and ready to tackle any mountain," says Kadiatou Diallo, who traveled from Guinea to New York to collect her child's remains.
What people should know about Amadou: He was energetic, driven and funny and he spoke French, English, Spanish, Thai and Fulani. Amadou also held a certificate from the French International School in Thailand and a computer science school in Singapore. "Amadou was born September 2, 1975, in Liberia, a country founded by freed slaves from the U.S.," his mother says. "[The media] had stereotyped Amadou as "the West African immigrant and street vendor." Not that there's anything wrong with being a street vendor, but he did that for less than a year until he had saved enough money to return to college," says Kadiatou. "Even if he had only been a street vendor, that did not take away from his humanity."
How she copes: Kadiatou is steadfast in her Muslim faith and dedicates herself to serving others.
How she's forging ahead: The former businesswoman has devoted herself to her 9-year-old triplet grandsons, the eldest of whom shares Uncle Amadou's name. She also utilizes the New York City-based Diallo Foundation and CADITEC (Amadou Diallo Technical Center for Computer Literacy), which she established in Labe, Guinea, to promote educational opportunities for Africans and African-Americans. Additionally, Kadiatou tries to be present when other parents face tragedies akin to the one that struck her family. "I want to be there. I must be there," she says. "That's one of the hardest parts of this. As a mother who is still trying to heal, being there opens the wound again. But these issues will not go away until we decide they must go away and work toward that."
The foundation's mission: To ensure that students from the African diaspora have access to a college education. "One of the challenges for Amadou was that he arrived here with only a tourist visa," his mom says. "We want to ensure that African students are fully prepared and qualified to be here. The center, which we run with the University of Labe, is training them in computers and literacy."
What's next: Placing the upcoming graphic novel The Amadou Diallo Story in schools "as a tool," Diallo says, "for learning about Amadou's life and legacy. Amadou is an important part of African-American history." How you can help: Support the foundation by spreading the word about its endeavors. For more details, log on to amadoudiallofoundation.com.
This feature was originally published in the December 2014 isue of ESSENCE.