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March For Our Lives

At March for Our Lives, standing up for friends and family lost to gun violence

Fort Valley State athlete Kiyah Walton: ‘To be here and see so many youth stand up and talk about an issue that’s impacted me is inspiring’

For Kiyah Walton, it was a chance to stand up for her three friends who were violently shot to death in her hometown of Lithonia, Georgia, last August. So Walton, who has served as captain of the track and volleyball teams at Fort Valley State University, stood shoulder to shoulder with thousands of others along Pennsylvania Avenue for Saturday’s March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C.

“I had just spent time with them in Atlanta, and then I get a call as I’m waking up for my 8 o’clock class that they had been shot to death,” Walton said of Eric Robinson, 27, Stanford Henderson, 28, and sister Starlynne Henderson, 29, who were found dead in Robinson’s condo. “I’m here because we all need to take a stand and make everyone aware that gun violence is real.”

Walton arrived in Washington, D.C., at 9 a.m. on Saturday with a group on an MTV- and NAACP-sponsored charter bus that left Atlanta at 9 p.m. on Friday.

There was no fatigue from the group once they arrived in Washington, only excitement to support a gun control cause that has gained plenty of traction since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last month that left 17 people dead.

“This is just an amazing event to be a part of and to witness,” Walton said. “To be here and see so many youth stand up and talk about an issue that’s impacted me is inspiring. No one’s been caught in the killings of my friends, and the town is still devastated.”

The devastation and frustration associated with gun violence drew Walton along with hundreds of thousands of other participants from across the nation to Washington, as crowds crammed the streets along Pennsylvania Avenue for the march.

They held signs and chanted, “Enough is enough” and “Never again” and demanded changes in laws that would limit gun violence in this country.

It was organized as a youth march, inspired by the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. As speakers, including student survivors from Stoneman Douglas, took the stage in Washington on Saturday, dozens of related marches were held internationally and hundreds took place in cities throughout the United States, including New York, Denver, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles.

Participants were young and old, black and white, American citizens and foreign nationals.

Nine-year-old Kayman Molloy, holding a handmade sign that read “I don’t want to die,” represented the mood of the marchers.

“You shouldn’t be able to get a machine gun at 18 when you can’t buy a beer,” said Molloy, who traveled with his mother, Erin, from Boca Raton, Florida, for the march. “Guns are bad.”

Michael Rahbar, 21, entered Pennsylvania Avenue with a sign that read “MY FAMILY DIDN’T ESCAPE NOOSES IN IRAN FOR BULLETS IN AMERICA.” His father came to the United States as a refugee from Iran when he was 13; his grandfather was in the military force for the Shah.

“My family came here hoping they’d be safe,” Rahbar said. “Living in Florida, one of the first things you do is find out the first means of escape when you’re in a classroom. That’s sad, and I don’t want any other students to have to go through that.”

In addition to the Stoneman Douglas survivors, many of the others who took the stage had been personally affected by gun violence.

Yolanda Renee King, the 9-year-old granddaughter of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., told the crowd, “I have a dream that enough is enough. And that this should be a gun-free world.”

Zion Kelly, a 16-year-old high school senior at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, was emotional as he spoke about his twin brother, Zaire, the captain of the track team who was shot to death as he walked home from school last September. “Zaire had a personality that would light up a room,” Kelly said. “I spent time with him every day. We went to the same school and shared the same friends, and we even shared the same room.”

As Kelly fought back tears, many in the audience cried. “Can you imagine how it would be to lose someone that close to you?” Kelly said. “Sadly, too many of my friends and peers can. … My name is Zion Kelly. And just like all of you, I’ve had enough.”

Even singer and actress Jennifer Hudson, who closed the program singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” has a story. Her mother, brother and nephew were all shot to death in Chicago in 2008.

With the massive crowds in the nation’s capital (as of 4 p.m., Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had reported 334,000 riders, two and a half times more than normal) bringing a message of gun control, the marchers expressed hope that they can help create a change in gun control legislation.

“Personally, I lost hope with Sandy Hook — if all those first-graders can die and nothing happens, then what’s it going to take?” said Maggie Herman, a Kansas City native who now lives in Washington. “I think this has opened a political window, restarted the conversation. It’s great that we can really make this a big issue again.”

Charlee McNeil, a high school freshman from the D.C. suburbs, attended the rally with her parents. She doesn’t know anyone who’s been a victim of gun violence, but she attended because “I want to support what I believe in. I think it’s great everyone is out here.”

As McNeil spoke, her father, Derek, listened intently. He says when he went to school back in the day the main issue was students smoking on school grounds.

“We all leave here today and, God forbid, Monday morning another shooting can happen,” he said. “It can happen at any school, to anybody’s kid. That’s how concerned I am.”

Walton is concerned as well. No one has been arrested in the deaths of her friends in Lithonia last August.

“Eric [one of the victims] was like a brother to me who would pick me up from sporting events, take me to practice and just be an overall brother figure,” Walton said. “My town is a family town, and we take care of everybody. To have three people murdered, it’s been tough.”

She’ll leave Washington on Sunday morning inspired by the energy that surrounded her at the march.

“The speech by [Stoneman Douglas survivor] Emma Gonzalez was great, and I enjoyed hearing Martin Luther King’s granddaughter,” Walton said. “I’m just thankful to have been a part of an amazing event.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.