“I don’t think that this happened to me by chance,” Lezley McSpadden-Head said as she talked about the unimaginable and tragic circumstances that became her reality on August 9, 2014.
“I think God picked our family because he felt that I was strong enough to deal with it.”
She confessed that if she hadn’t had the revelation to look at the tragedy in a spiritual way, she doesn’t know where she would be today. “I have to thank God for the 18 years he let me have with Mike Mike and say, ‘Thank you for letting me be his mother’.”
Friday will mark five years since her unarmed teen son was killed by then Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson. “Don’t ever think that my son’s death anniversary is a celebration for me,” she said. “I’m not looking forward to it.”
His death compelled people to take to the streets and demand justice – and commit to months of nonstop protest that captured the world’s attention.
“Five years is a marker in a lot of people’s lives,” McSpadden-Head said. “You go to school at five. You set five-year goals. You pay off houses in five years. Five years is a significant milestone in people’s lives. We are waiting to see a goal be scored as far as justice. Have we seen that? Of course not.”
She recalled the day of her son’s death with haunting, photographic recall. She was at her longtime job at Straub’s when she got a phone call that someone in Canfield Green Apartments had been shot and that they believed it was her son. Somehow her co-worker seemed to already know what was going on. So did her employer.
“I remember somebody saying, ‘Get Lezley and bring her to the back,” McSpadden-Head said. “I said, ‘I’m not going to the back, I’m going out the door.’”
She had to get to her “Mike Mike,” but she was such an emotional wreck that she couldn’t drive. Her coworker volunteered to take her to Ferguson. As she was on the road, she tried to get in touch with her husband, Louis Head.
“I wanted to let him know to get around the corner because they are saying that the police just shot Mike Mike.”
By the time she made it, her husband was already on the corner holding up a makeshift sign that read “Ferguson Police Just Executed My Unarmed Son.” An image of him holding the sign made its way to social media – and instantly went viral on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
“To this day I don’t even think I asked my husband, what made you write the sign,” McSpadden-Head said. “Where did you get the cardboard from? Where did you get the pen from?”
Upon entering the apartment complex, Canfield drive was filled with the red and white St. Louis County Police cars. Brown’s father, also named Michael Brown, arrived at the exact moment.
“We both got out the car at the same time, ran down the street at the same time. It was so in sync,” McSpadden-Head said. “I couldn’t say anything but his name, ‘Mike.’ That alone was saying so much – ‘I can’t believe we are here for this. I can’t believe they are saying this has happened to our son.’ When I ran down that street, you’ve seen it all over the news what happened next. My mind left my body.”
Her son was under a sheet surrounding a pool of blood – where he would remain for the next four-and-a-half hours. McSpadden stayed at the scene the entire time, but it would be nearly a month before she saw his face again – during a private viewing of his body.
“When I first met with the funeral director, I told him I wanted my son to look just like himself,” she said. “Austin Layne did a really good job.”
The source of her strength
After her son’s death, and the relentless protests sparked by his killing, she had to deal with the assassination of his character. She had never been on an airplane before August 9, 2014. But in the days and weeks that followed, she found herself traveling across the country to talk about her son. Her lawyers told her not to watch the news. It didn’t matter which city they were in, because the unrest received national and international coverage. One night, she decided to watch anyway.
“It was like the killing of him over and over again,” McSpadden-Head said. “The lies that were told and the stories that were being made up about him.”
In that moment, she prayed to God to give her the strength to endure it all.
“I had to quit listening to these human beings and rely on God – I said, ‘I have to give it to Him,’ and that’s what I did,” McSpadden- Head said. “People would say ‘you have to forgive.’ But God didn’t tell me that I had to forgive. He told me that I had to fight. He told me that I had to stand. And he told me that faith without works is dead.”
She is grateful to the people who protested and those spoke of what they witnessed that day.
“I’m so thankful that somebody was watching this time. Somebody was fed up. I’m just so thankful because I couldn’t have done this by myself,” McSpadden-Head said. “I don’t know if I would be here sitting talking about this if I didn’t have so much support and so many people saying ‘enough is enough – that boy had his hands up, we did see it.’”
She’s also thankful to the countless organizations – namely Action St. Louis and ArchCity Defenders – that pushed for systemic change as response to her son’s death.
After losing Michael, she didn’t want to let her three surviving children back out into the world. She didn’t want them to be in the public eye and susceptible to slanderous comments that were made about their big brother.
It was her youngest daughter that lit the spark to change her mindset.
“She came to my door. She was fully dressed in her uniform for school and she told me, ‘Mom, I’m ready to go to school,’” McSpadden-Head said. “I had to tell myself, ‘If a seven year old can get themselves up, dressed and ready for school and meet me at the door, the least you can do is meet her halfway. Get up out of this bed. Put something in your mouth and take these babies to school and continue being their mother.’
That was the beginning of her regaining her strength.
“This was the start of me realizing that, ‘God woke you up today and you’ve got to fight.”
Because of the events in Ferguson, she couldn’t go back to the job she loved and held for 12 years. So, she threw herself into building a legacy in her son’s memory. She created a nonprofit organization, the Michael O.D. Brown We Love Our Sons And Daughters Foundation. She wrote a book. In 2017, She earned her high school diploma – and walked across the stage on the same night as her eldest daughter, Deja Brown, at Jennings High School. Deja Brown attends Tennessee State University, where she studies neonatal nursing. Her son made National Honor Society and her daughter is also thriving. They both attend schools in the Jennings School District, where there is a memorial garden in honor of their brother.
She ran for Ferguson City Council. She didn’t get elected, but is proud God gave her the courage to knock on more than 3,000 doors and campaign for change.
Two weeks ago, she took the inaugural group of Camp Brown Kids to Macomb, Illinois. She also hopes to build an arts center for youth in the region.
She considers her biggest accomplishment the ability to keep going when she wanted to give up.
She credits her husband, her family and her circle for the continued support – and considers her life mission to be to honor and continue to fight for healing and change in Michael Brown’s name.
“Had this not happened to my son, St. Louis would still be operating the way that it was on August 8, 2014,” McSpadden-Head said. “Keep that in mind and keep his family in your prayers.
And know that as long as I have breath in my body, I will be watching and waiting to see if any of these action words – justice, equality, equity, reform – will happen within the next five years.”