Wesley Lowery is a national reporter for The Washington Post, and was the paper’s lead reporter on the ground during the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. He was a member of the team that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for its coverage of police shootings in America.
They typically gather around Mother’s Day each year to catch up, hold each other and cry for the children they’ve lost.
It’s a somber sorority: half a dozen grieving mothers whose children, lost to violent death, became polarizing figures in a divided nation’s grappling with race. There is Wanda Johnson, whose son, Oscar Grant, was killed by a transit police officer on New Year’s Eve, 2009, at Oakland’s Fruitvale Station. And Sybrina Fulton, whose son Trayvon Martin was shot in 2012 by a self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman and whose fight for justice was broadcast live on cable. And Gwen Carr, whose son Eric Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe” as a swarm of New York City police officers tackled him in 2014.
Also among the group is Lezley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, who was shot by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. “When you lose a child it isn’t something that just sits in your heart,” McSpadden writes in her book, “Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil.” “It’s in your mind. It darkens your spirit.”
Since her son’s death, McSpadden has served as the prevailing image of pain at the center of the Black Lives Matter protest movement. The nation listened as she wailed on the night of her son’s death and again three months later when a grand jury declined to indict his killer. We watched as she sat through interview after interview, too distraught to speak much about her son. Until now, we’ve known little about Brown, his mother and his father, Michael Brown Sr.
While the book’s subtitle suggests that McSpadden will tell her son’s story, she in fact takes us on an honest, revealing walk through her own life — a personal family history crucial to understanding the full context of Michael’s death and the chaos that followed.
Like many black children in St. Louis, McSpadden was born on the wrong side of town — surrounded by gangs, drugs and violence. In high school she fell hard for her first boyfriend, Michael Brown, and dropped out after giving birth to Mike Mike, the first of her four children by two men who, she writes, could never stop hurting her — both emotionally and physically.
Her book, co-written with Lyah Beth LeFlore, provides the first full account of the life of young Michael Brown, chronicling his early diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, his struggles with his weight and health, his role in helping raise his younger siblings, and his battle to complete high school. He earned his diploma with the help of a counselor and his mother in early August 2014, shortly before he was killed.
McSpadden missed the graduation ceremony because she was working, but she raced toward home and found him walking along the street. She pulled over, and mother and son embraced over his diploma. A week later, McSpadden dashed out of work again, this time desperate to find her son — but she was too late.
In her book, McSpadden invites readers into private moments undocumented by the media that flooded Ferguson. We witness her life both mundane and extraordinary: She makes a sandwich for one of her regulars at the grocery store deli where she works just before learning of her son’s death; she watches in horror as rioters clash with heavily armored police officers; she speaks with Prince and Beyoncé before a benefit concert in Baltimore following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray.
And we are there with her when she hears that officer Darren Wilson would not face federal civil rights charges. McSpadden had put her hope in Attorney General Eric Holder, who had visited Ferguson and vowed to secure justice. If local officials wouldn’t indict Wilson, she reasoned, certainly he would.
“What happened, Mr. Holder?” McSpadden thought, as she watched the attorney general deliver the news to the nation that evening. “You promised me. I thought you had my back. I thought you understood.”
The next morning, McSpadden was startled by a knock at the door: It was a FedEx delivery man with a letter from Holder. “As a parent of three children, I cannot imagine the pain you have endured, or the bravery you must summon each and every day in order to move forward,” Holder wrote in the letter, printed in full in the book. “You have experienced pain that no parent should ever have to bear.”
The book’s closing chapters focus on McSpadden’s efforts to move forward: She begins therapy and forms a foundation whose mission is supporting mothers who have lost children to gun violence.
After nearly two years, protests and discussions on race and policing continue nationally, while much about the confrontation between Wilson and Brown that Saturday afternoon on Ferguson’s Canfield Drive still feels unresolved: Countless questions linger.
“Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil” doesn’t provide answers, but it gives a glimpse into the depths of a grieving mother’s heart. Her story is forever tied to what happened between her son and the officer.
“There were three people out there on Canfield that day,” McSpadden writes in a letter to Michael at the end of the book. “So there are three sides to the story.”
By Lezley McSpadden
254 pp. $26.95