Taking his turn at the church microphone Friday, Chapel Hill’s police chief joined six pastors in a struggle to find meaning in the fatal shooting of 14-month-old Maleah Williams on Christmas Day.
“It’s hard to make sense of something so senseless,” Police Chief Chris Blue said to an audience of 150 at St. Joseph CME Church. “Maybe God’s plan is to remind us that every day is precious.”
Maleah was in a group of children and adults enjoying the mild evening weather on Dec. 25 when two men stepped out of a car and fired their guns. She died three days later from a head wound. Three young men are in jail on murder and other charges.
Church and civil rights leaders invoked the toddler’s name again and again Friday at the local observance of Emancipation Day – marking the New Year’s anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863, which announced freedom for enslaved people in 10 Confederate states.
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“Maleah, by the way, was only doing what little children do, and that was hanging out in her mother’s arms,” said the Rev. Thomas Nixon, pastor of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. “Yet, because of evil, because of sin, because of the forces of this present world who know not Jesus, we are here today grieving, mad, angry and hurt.”
Family members and friends gathered at sunset Friday at the Trinity Court apartment complex to hold a candlelight vigil near the spot where Maleah was shot.
The little girl’s family has generations-old connections in Chapel Hill. Her aunts, grandmother and cousins hugged each other in the front pews at St. Joseph alongside Maleah’s parents, Shaquille and Tylena Williams, both 22.
One of the young men accused in her death also has a long family history here, but no one spoke of his family Friday.
“No citizen of Orange County should be afraid to walk the streets in fear that they may be shot or overtaken by some thug here in our community,” said the Rev. Robert Campbell, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Several voices in the audience shouted, “Yes!” in affirmation.
Maleah, by the way, was only doing what little children do, and that was hanging out in her mother’s arms.
Rev. Thomas Nixon, St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church
“Yes, I did say thugs. Or hoodlums, as the old folks used to say,” Campbell said.
“Yes they are!” came the echo.
“I would be beside myself if I said nothing about guns and gun violence,” Campbell said. “Guns are in the hands of illegal users who don’t know how to use them properly. ... It is not the gun, it is the person behind the gun.”
Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger targeted guns more directly in public comments shortly after the Christmas Day shooting. She called for laws that would give local governments more authority to control guns.
“We are one community,” Hemminger told the audience Friday. “This happened to all of us. It breaks all of our hearts. ... We need to have that ability to have local control and stop senseless violence.”
The Rev. Michelle Laws, a Chapel Hill native who is the state’s NAACP director, thanked Hemminger for her quick response to the shooting. She drew applause when she praised Blue, “who dispatched his men and got the perpetrators off the street as quickly as he could.”
Shaquille Oneill Davis, 22, of Durham was charged with attempted murder on Sunday, before Maleah’s death the next day. Ramone Jamarr Alston, 22, and Pierre Je Bron Moore, 23, both of Chapel Hill, were arrested Monday and charged with murder.
The crowd hushed as a final speaker limped to the microphone, leaning heavily on his cane. There was silence so everyone could hear the words, soft at first, from the Rev. William Barber II of Goldsboro, president of the state NAACP.
Our people made it through slavery without killing one another. Don’t tell me it’s upbringing and poverty.
Rev. William Barber II, state NAACP president
“It makes no sense for us to be killing more of our people than the Ku Klux Klan ever did,” Barber said.
“Our people made it through slavery without killing one another. Don’t tell me it’s upbringing and poverty. We’ve got to fight against poverty, yes, ... but evil kills babies,” Barber said.
His voice rose to a shout, and the audience shouted with him, standing and clapping.
“We’ve got to stop these funerals,” Barber said. “We must refuse to be comforted until our children are protected. I don’t care how they die – by gunshot or the lack of health care. Every child is a Maleah, unique and beautiful. And we must fight for their lives.”