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How a Facebook moms group is hoping to change the landscape for their Black sons

Members of the group Moms of Black Boys United at a demonstration in New York City. (Laura Wer)
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It was just after the back-to-back fatal shooting deaths by police of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in 2016 that Vanessa McCullers realized her then-18-year-old son began refusing to leave the house.

“He was terrified,” says McCullers, whose son is Black. “It shook him to the core.”

She knew she needed to do something to help him and to find the support she also needed, but she wasn’t sure what that should be.

Just a couple of days after the deaths, McCullers got an invite from a college friend to join a newly launched Facebook group called Moms of Black Boys United (MOBB).

“I saw this page filled with thoughts and words that echoed my own sentiments about my son. The fact that I celebrated him and loved him and how much he is just such a wonder," she says. And then to think about Philando Castile’s mother, “who feels the same about her son, but he’s just been ripped from her life in such a violent manner.”

Two weeks later, McCullers and president and founder of MOBB, Depelsha Thomas McGruder, connected on the page. McCullers discovered that she and McGruder had worked together at MTV at the same time — not closely, but they knew of each other. The two became fast friends and decided it wasn’t enough for the moms in the group to simply support one another, they needed to galvanize their voices and change the perceptions of their sons, and the policies around policing that impact Black boys and men at a greater rate than Whites.

In his first few weeks in office, President Biden is facing immense pressure from civil rights groups demanding that he turn his campaign pledges into reforms in policing and the criminal justice system. It is grass-roots groups such as MOBB, not unlike Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the 1980s, that are pushing for and creating change. In this case, it can mean life or death for their Black sons.

Police violence is a leading cause of death of young men in the U.S. with Black men 2.5 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement over their lifetime than White men, according to a Rutgers study. An NPR investigation found that since 2015, 135 unarmed Black men and women in the U.S. have been killed by police.

Of course, this violence doesn’t just happen to Black boys. Look at the recent case in Rochester, N.Y., in which police handcuffed and pepper-sprayed a distraught 9-year-old Black girl who, according to her mother, was having a mental health crisis. A groundbreaking study by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequity found that the “adultification” of Black girls shows a bias toward girls starting as young as age 5.

McGruder’s sons were 4 and 7 when she launched the MOBB Facebook group. She says she “accidentally” started the organization in a moment of raw emotions and out of a desire to connect with people who could understand what she was feeling.

“At the time, my sons were still at ages when Black boys are ‘cute’ and worthy of childlike sympathy,” McGruder says. She cites studies that find that by the time Black boys turn 10, people no longer view them as innocent. “They start to see them as potential aggressors, as someone who might harm them. They cross the street when they see them and they look at them with skepticism and suspicion, and may not want their kids to be around them as much.”

She adds that because her oldest son has autism, impacting his ability to communicate and process social cues, she is particularly afraid for him. “When you layer on a Black male who’s autistic with what happens in the news, somebody flailing their arms or dancing in the street, or whatever it may be, any act performed by a Black boy or man is considered suspicious, so that elevated my fears to an additional level.”

Today, MOBB United is made up of a diverse group of nearly 200,000 women — White mothers, adoptive mothers, moms from outside of the U.S., mothers with newborns, and some with sons who are incarcerated.

“I was so excited to become a mom because that was a long journey," says Delicia Reynolds-Hand, who joined the group just after it launched. She has two sons, ages 3 and 5. “But I was also terrified about what his future would hold, just doing normal activities. That he would be perceived as a threat.”

To illustrate her point, Reynolds-Hand tells a story about one of her sons when he was 18 months old. She says they were at a playground in Wheaton Regional Park in Silver Spring, Md., when her son, who is big for his age, bumped into another toddler. The White mom of the little girl ran over and then threatened to call the police. “She charged at my child and was actually going to hit him. So, to see that occur at a very young age with your children it’s not something that we’re willing to accept or tolerate," she says. "I was and am worried about the future of my sons.”

In 2016, MOBB began to lobby lawmakers. The group developed what members call a “five-point platform,” focusing on education, economic empowerment, accountability in law enforcement, changing policies in policing, and strategic partnerships.

The group used the platform to persuade lawmakers to advocate for them. Working with the Congressional Black Caucus in 2018, the women helped develop the Justice in Policing Act.

“We are demanding that deadly force only be used as a last resort after employing de-escalation techniques," Reynolds-Hand says. “I would also say that we help fill the gap. After the cameras are gone, we keep the conversation going. Because at the end of the day, the families are the ones left to pick up the pieces and continue lives without their loved ones. We want our sons to make it home alive.”

The group is as focused on making changes in federal policy as it is on local changes — whether it’s making calls to local police departments and sheriff’s offices or prepping moms before they travel to Washington to meet with their representatives.

“By galvanizing our moms, I feel more empowered and less afraid. I feel like we are taking matters into our own hands," McGruder says. “We have momentum and there’s a lot more awareness of the issues we’ve identified and talk about and more people are willing to listen and hopefully more people are willing to take action.”

The women say they are also cautiously optimistic about how fast things will change around policing. But Reynolds-Hand points to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol as an example of how far the country has to go when it comes to discussing the role of law enforcement and the Black community.

The attack on the Capitol was a chilling lesson for my Black kids

At least 13 off-duty law enforcement officials are suspected of participating in the riot.

“There’s a rise of hate groups that now feel empowered to claim this country as their own and look at Black and Brown people as invaders or not American," Reynolds-Hand says. "So, when I say I want my child to feel safe and to be held to the same standards [as White boys and men], that somehow seems un-American. I think we need more dialogue and work in that space.”

Rebekah Sager is a journalist, writer and mother. She’s currently working on a novel.

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