Half his life ago, N.C. Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr.’s arm was just about shot off in a convenience-store robbery.
His arm was saved, but 33 years later, he still needs help sometimes carrying things, or buttoning a shirt.
He can’t play guitar anymore. He can still swim, but not as long as he used to, before that night on Dec. 27, 1985, when a robber shot him with a sawed-off shotgun.
Before McKissick, 66, served on the Durham City Council and in the North Carolina legislature, he was an attorney in Washington, D.C. And he also owned a convenience store off Interstate 85 in Warren County. It was there he survived a close-range gunshot, which he credits to staying calm even as he was bleeding profusely from a wound that left his left arm dangling.
Earlier that day, he had spent a couple of hours at the home of his parents — the civil rights leaders Evelyn McKissick and Floyd McKissick Sr. — chatting with another civil rights leader, Andrew Young.
McKissick grew up in the movement, and his family received bomb threats. A lawsuit by his mother desegregated the Durham public school system. His father spoke at the March on Washington and debated Malcolm X. McKissick and his siblings were in the first wave of African-American students in then all-white Durham schools, often the only ones in their classes. So McKissick had learned about remaining calm in stressful situations.
Keeping calm and advocating for himself is the only reason he still has his life and his left arm today, he said.
When McKissick was shot
In what has become an annual post on his state senator Facebook page, McKissick narrated the events of that December night. It has gotten hundreds of responses. Some people have asked him what he would have done if he’d had a gun at the store.
“But I would have been an absolute idiot and a fool to have gone for it and ended up in some short of showdown, like a gunslinger. I’d be dead today,” McKissick said in an interview.
Around 7 p.m. two men parked outside and came in. One went to get a soda. The other came right for McKissick with a sawed-off shotgun. McKissick gave them money and lay on the floor. They kicked him. Then one told the other, “Shoot him.”
The gun was aimed at his chest, McKissick said, and he reflexively raised his hands. The shotgun blast blew off most of his left arm near his elbow.
“They were running out the store as they were shooting me basically. There was just blood everywhere. The only thing I can ever imagine it looking like was the inside of a lobster tail,” he said, describing his arm.
“The pain was excruciating. I got up, I locked the door of the place. I held my arm. The thing that I didn’t do, which helped me more than anything on earth, was panic.”
McKissick called on the calm he learned as a child.
“You couldn’t get yourself into a fight, because you would end up the loser. We had guards in our house at night, bomb threats in the ‘60s. You learn to control your emotions perhaps a little bit better,” he said.
McKissick knew he had to put his mind above the pain, he said. Doctors told him later he was lucky he didn’t bleed to death.
After being shot, he locked the store’s door and called the police, then his parents. The men were caught, and both served time in prison. He’s forgotten their names, but remembers they were brothers-in-law, and young.
‘Nothing is promised’
Other things McKissick still remembers.
The doctor wanted to cut off his blood-soaked pants, but McKissick said no. He liked those pants, which he had gotten in San Francisco. Gray flannel. So they remained intact. But his sweater had a hole in it from the shotgun, so he let that one go, he said.
He’s not angry at the men who left him with a lifelong injury.
“I understand that in life, nothing is promised. You’re gonna run into obstacles, run into challenges, run into circumstances that you have to overcome,” he said. “Desegregating public schools wasn’t an easy feat when you’re the only African American in class in sixth, seventh, eighth grade, when people think you have the intelligence of an ape.”
He attended North Durham Elementary School and then Carr Junior High School in the early years of Durham desegregation.
“You can’t let people define you. You have to do that yourself, you know? You just have to overcome it. You don’t let that stop you,” he said.
He’s glad he had health insurance to cover his surgeries, and was able to advocate for himself enough to keep his arm, instead of letting doctors amputate it.
He doesn’t own a gun today.
“I had a pistol permit back in that time frame. Other than to fire at a target, it was never fired at anything else, ever. And that was just to learn what it could do. I didn’t feel safe using it. I’m one of those people who thinks you should have reasonable gun regulations and restrict access to firearms,” McKissick said.
He has sympathy for shooting victims and anyone who is dealing with a disability. He met some in that year and a half of recovery and seven surgeries to repair his arm.
“They were hopeless, in despair. They felt like the world owed them something. That they had been cheated,” he said. “And I can understand how they can feel all those things.”
“I can’t say I’m a victim and the world owes me something. ... I was determined not to be a victim. Even though by law I could put a handicap plate on my car, I’ve never had one. And there were times I needed that close parking space because I couldn’t carry things as well. My arm’s impaired. People help, they understand. It’s just that I will try,” he said.
He still owns the store building. It’s closed now, and McKissick uses it for storage. But after the shooting, he went back to work there, until he no longer had anxiety about being there alone.
“The two guys were white people, they weren’t black,” he said. “I’m not suspicious of every white man that walks near me. There are good people and bad people of all races.”
McKissick said he’s moved on. He was just sworn in to another term in the N.C. Senate.