In 2016, Memphis experienced its highest rate of homicides to date: 228 lives lost. In December of that year, former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton spoke at a New Year’s Eve prayer breakfast. He was the city’s first Black mayor when he took the office in 1991 and was re-elected for five terms. 

At the microphone, he characterized Memphis’ violent crime issue as a Black problem. "The Blacks must take ownership of the problem,” he said. “They can't pass it off. It's up to us to protect us from us.”

The alienating qualification of violent crime as a strictly behavioral problem adds stigma and insult to generations of systemic injury in the city’s majority Black population. Economic inequality tilts against the interest of that 63% of the city. The likelihood of living below the poverty line is nearly three times higher than Memphis’ while residents.

Smokey City, a mostly Black neighborhood, has nearly 43 percent of the families living below the poverty line, near schools that have closed or are on the verge of being closed. Access to living wages, reliable public transportation and affordable healthcare was diminished as communities like Smokey City faced chronic divestments by both business and government.

“We’ve had homicides and shootings, but it isn’t like it is now,” Marcel Holmes said while walking through Smokey City. “The kids don't have anything to do now because Memphis has destroyed the things for the kids to do.”

The weight of that stigma gives little room to also process the trauma of violence. People who are affected are often revictimized by the isolation of living in communities experiencing crime. But where the disconnect from the city has left a void, family and community step in to carry the pain of loss and the reverence of memory.

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