On September 1st, I woke up doubting myself.
In my new month’s editor’s letter, I write about Memphis’ many complications, as well as my complicated relationship with my hometown. The first day of September is an unofficial local holiday — 901 — and instead of simply touting the virtues of Memphis, I let my chaotic emotions show.
I talked about the way we drive our cars (which “unexpectedly” will be charitable) and the stench of garbage on the sidewalk. I also spoke about what I call “positive disregard for human life,” citing the murders of Rev. Altura Ethan-Williams and Dr. Allen. Yvonne Nelson, and hundreds of people who have been or will be killed in our city this year.
That morning, I stood by what I had written — honest with every word — but I questioned whether I should simply talk about my love for this community without bringing up this mess. I fear that I will rain on my city parade because I love this place – I do love this place – and I desperately want it to be safer, fairer, more hopeful, and more prosperous.
Then, on September 2, more and more shocking news reports rang my phone. Early that Friday morning, a woman named Eliza Fletcher had not returned home from her run. Photos of Fletcher began to go viral. She went out for a jog early in the morning—she ran marathons, had kids, and worked; when else could she train? – Someone violently kidnapped her in a black SUV. Fletcher’s body was found by the Memphis Police Department behind an abandoned duplex in South Memphis on Monday afternoon.
I don’t know Eliza Fletcher, not really, but she lives near where I live and we chatted like neighbors for a while. I can say by the way, she is a loving mother to two little boys. I’ve since learned that she’s also a wife, a church member and a kindergarten teacher who sang “This Little Light of Me” for her elementary school students during the first few weeks of the outbreak. .
Her alleged captor, Cleotha Henderson, is a man who served 20 years in prison for an earlier kidnapping before being released in 2020. In addition to kidnapping and murdering Fletcher, he is now charged with another 2021 rape and kidnapping case (the rape kit wasn’t tested until after it was related to the Fletcher case – think about it).
This man is 38 years old, the same age as me. Henderson was arrested in 2000 when he kidnapped the late local lawyer Kemper Durand 16 years old. He has spent most of his life in prison and will surely spend all or almost all of the rest of his life in prison. When he was previously imprisoned – his first arrest was in 1995, when he was 11 – how serious was anyone about the work of repairing a clearly broken person? If we basically put prisoners in cold storage for decades and then put them back into the community, what do we expect to happen? Do these really work?
Two days after police found Fletcher’s body, the MPD issued an unusual statement: Citizens will take shelter in place. Allegedly, a man named Ezekiel Kelly opened fire apparently at random throughout the city. Seven people were shot and three died. Kelly live-streamed parts of his own atrocities. Now nineteen, he already had prison experience, serving just 11 months to three years in prison for attempted murder and other charges. Again, I ask: do these really work?
Violence is not unique to Memphis. We know this. But we have problems that affect each other. Our city is largely a poor city, lacking sufficient economic mobility and, for many citizens, a clear entry to a better life. We need better and more accessible mental and physical health care for all. We need visionary leaders and, just as importantly, leaders who can collaborate with each other and with those they serve. We need — each of us — to commit to the role we can play in elevating Memphis.
Memphis is a city of contrasts: rich and poor, black and white, healthy and not, and so on. The murder of Eliza Fletcher was heartbreaking — and made headlines, in part because, yes, she was young, white, beautiful and privileged. The shooting swept our lives as it affected many communities, and Kelly allegedly hijacked cars one by one. No one can maintain the illusion of immunity. As much as we humans hate to admit it, we are all heartbroken and vulnerable to each other.
What happens next is up to you, up to me, up to all of us.