“I said, ‘Baby, you got to understand. You are a young, Black male, and there are people in this country that are not going to care about you or love you like us, your family, your community,'” the Democratic congresswoman from Georgia recalled.
It’s the conversation no parent wants to have, but so many Black mothers and fathers across this country feel it is a must.
“‘You have to be really careful where you are, what you do. Don’t get into any verbal confrontation with anyone. … People will take out a gun and they will shoot you.’ And I remember Jordan had said, with that bravado, ‘Mom, that’s not going to happen to me.'”
Just nine months later, that’s exactly what happened to him. Jordan was shot three times, killed by a White man at a gas station who was angry that Jordan and his friends were playing loud music. At 17, he was the same age as Martin.
Forever seared in McBath’s memory is the call she got from Jordan’s father to tell her the gut-wrenching news.
“Jordan’s been shot,” he told her.
“Just this primal wail came out of me, and I was like, ‘Where’s Jordan?’ I just started screaming. Jordan’s father said, he told me ‘Jordan is dead,'” McBath said with tears welling in her eyes.
“I felt like in that moment that everything I had done to protect him, it wasn’t good enough,” she said. “Everything I had thought I had done, putting him in the right community and putting him in the right schools and keeping him around the right kids, the right families, it didn’t matter because he was a young Black male, and it was simply because of the color of his skin.”
The gunman in Jordan’s case was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Turning pain into purpose
The month after Jordan’s death, a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and killed 20 kids between the ages of six and seven — and six adults. A grassroots movement called Moms Demand Action was started in the wake of that tragedy to reduce gun violence in America, and McBath quickly joined in the fight.
“Any person that would allow me to speak or tell my story, that’s what I did, because I wanted the world to know what happened to my child. And it wasn’t right, and it wasn’t only happening to my child, but it was happening to children and people all across the country,” McBath explained.
She redirected her pain into purpose.
“I was raised that you fight to protect and care for the people that you can believe in and that you love. You fight for your community. You fight for those that feel defenseless,” she said.
McBath was even invited to speak at the 2016 Democratic National Convention when Hillary Clinton was the Democratic nominee. She stood alongside seven mothers who had lost their children to gun violence or police brutality. She pledged her support for Clinton and promised to keep telling Jordan’s story.
“We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and urging you to say their names,” McBath said at the time.
“We’re going to keep building a future where police officers and communities of color work together in mutual respect to keep children, like Jordan, safe,” she added on stage.
‘That’s my DNA’
McBath grew up in a house deeply rooted in the civil rights movement. Her father, Dr. Lucien H. Holman, was the Illinois branch president of the NAACP in the 1960s.
“I always joke and said he was the dentist by day, but he was the full-time, full-throttle activist for civil rights at night,” she said.
She grew up watching her father give speeches and taking car rides with her mother to deliver The Black Voice, a civil rights newspaper that he founded. She attended the 1963 March on Washington in a stroller.
One of the first songs she ever learned to sing was “We Shall Overcome,” because it was being sung all the time around her. Her home was filled with civil rights leaders trying to change America.
“That’s my background. That’s my DNA,” McBath said.
“I can remember at night as a small child, my house was filled with people and they were drinking and smoking and strategizing,” she added.
Her father even met with President Lyndon B. Johnson regarding the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. She sometimes wonders what her now deceased father would think of what happened to her son.
“My father would probably roll over in his grave, both of my parents, if they knew that Jordan died in the same kinds of circumstances that they saw, that they fought so hard to eradicate,” she said.
Called to action
McBath didn’t follow her civil rights DNA for the first 30 years of her professional life. She was a flight attendant for Delta Airlines and didn’t consider running for Congress until Valentine’s Day 2018, when 17 people — including 14 students — were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
“Parkland happened, and I was furious. I was furious, because there again, we had Sandy Hook and nothing was done. There was no legislation, nothing was put in place,” she said frustratedly. “I thought, well, who’s going to stand up for our children? Why are federal legislators even refusing, our state and local legislators? What are you afraid of?”
She decided to make a longshot run for Congress. No one ever told her the numbers looked good for her, but she went for it anyway, launching a campaign for Georgia’s 6th District, which Democrats had failed to take in a high-profile special election the year before.
“I believed that, as a survivor and as a person who’s living this tragedy every single day of my life, that there’s so many other people around the country like me that are crying out for legislation, for policy, crying out for sensible legislation that protects our communities. And I’ll find them, because they’re out there,” she said.
She won — flipping her suburban Atlanta district from red to blue — part of the 2018 Democratic wave that helped return the speaker’s gavel to Nancy Pelosi. The congresswoman, now in her second term and serving alongside a Senate Democratic majority and a Democrat in the White House, is hopeful real change will come on gun legislation. But she admits it is a “long, long road.”
“The best opportunity that we have to evolve and put really good policy in place is right now, under this administration, but we’re not going to get everything that we want. It just doesn’t work that way. This is a cultural shift and change that we’re dealing with, and that takes time. It does not happen overnight,” she said.
“This is not about taking away guns from law-abiding gun owners. It’s never been that,” she added.
To be sure, her Georgia seat — which she won by more than 9 points last fall — is still competitive, and it’s unclear how redistricting will affect her. Even more unknown is how Georgia’s new, more restrictive voting law will play out in next year’s midterms.
“Shame on the Republican Party for putting these kinds of pieces of legislation in place that deters people’s ability to vote. But, I just truly believe that people are undeterred, and they know how important it is,” she said.
Fighting for women
McBath’s personal experiences have shaped what she’s fighting for in Congress. She is a two-time breast cancer survivor and experienced fertility issues, including having a still-born son before Jordan was born.
“I know how important it is to make sure that people like me, with pre-existing conditions, have access to the best quality health care that they can. If I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” she said, adding that that includes maternal health care.
“I understand what it’s like not being able to have a child. And I was very fortunate in that I had excellent health care,” she added.
She wants to fight for women to make sure they have access to the care they need from the beginning of their pregnancies until the end. She said she was able to get all kinds of surgeries so that she could get “one last chance” to have a child, Jordan.
“There’s so many women that don’t have access to good doctors. Food insecurity. They don’t have transportation to go to-and-from their doctors. And every woman in this country, and I don’t care where they come from, deserves to have. That is not a privilege, that is her right. And also, to care for the child, the baby. Women deserve that,” she said.
More women being elected to Congress, she said, will only help.
“It’s so important to have women at the table, so that we can speak about those things that are so critical. Not only to ourselves, but to our families and our communities,” she said.
‘His legacy is my legacy’
Time does not heal all wounds. Almost a decade after her teenager was killed, McBath still opens her eyes each day and feels searing pain.
“I wake up every single morning and the first thought in my mind is that he’s not here,” she said.
McBath keeps her son’s memory alive by talking about him — especially how welcoming he was to new friends at school.
“I used to say all the time that my house looked like a mini United Nations, because he would bring the skinny leg jeans kid, the jock, the nerdy kid. I mean, he embraced all people, and he was so good at bringing them together,” she recalled.
McBath visits Jordan’s gravesite often, and invited CNN to come with her. Pictures of Jordan at all ages are carved into his headstone — a snapshot of his short life. It’s the place where McBath says she feels closest to him, where he really hears her.
“I feel like I can talk to him out here,” she said. “And then I tell him a lot. I said, ‘I’m trying to do everything I was raising you to do. So I can’t be a hypocrite. And I got to try to get it right because that’s what I was trying to teach you to do.'”
“And I cry. But I always ask him, ‘Am I making you proud?'” she added.
McBath is living the kind of life she hoped her son would — being concerned about and living life for others.
“That is his legacy. Even though I thought I was sowing the seed into him to live that out, his legacy is my legacy.”