For years, Minneapolis anti-violence activist KG Wilson has consoled grieving families as they said their final goodbyes to loved ones taken by violence.
This time, they had his back.
His mother, Anita Echols, had a heart attack and lapsed into a coma, and by the time Wilson’s phone rang with the news last week, doctors at the Chicago hospital where she was taken had already delivered a grim prognosis: She had days, if not hours, to live.
The trouble was that Wilson, the youngest of her three surviving sons, was hundreds of miles away in Minneapolis, with no money to fly home and a fierce winter storm bearing down on the region.
Wilson posted a frantic message on his Facebook page later that night. Others did too, including V.J. Smith, founder of the violence prevention group MAD DADS and former cop turned community organizer Lisa Clemons, soliciting donations to buy Wilson a bus ticket down to Chicago and to help cover some of his meals.
“The next day V.J. called me and said that they had some help for me. And Lisa said that she had help for me. And then some other people called me to say that they had help for me. Next thing you know, I had a ticket,” Wilson said.
MAD DADS gave $100, as did Clemons’ group, A Mother’s Love. Others from Wilson’s past also chipped in, or offered condolences and prayers, including Marsha Mayes, whose 3-year-old son Terrell was killed by a stray bullet that pierced the walls of his North Side home on the day after Christmas in 2011. Like he has for dozens of other victims of gun violence, Wilson stood beside Mayes at a vigil mourning her son. Despite a $60,000 reward, the case remains unsolved seven years later.
“How could you not take his pain away when he was out here taking so many other people’s pain away?” said Clemons, who along with Wilson was part of a group that patrolled downtown streets to try to end street violence.
Born and raised on Chicago’s South Side, Echols had periodic bouts with drug addiction and alcohol abuse in early adulthood before she found God and got clean for good nearly 40 years ago, Wilson said. Not content to sit on the sidelines, she went back to school to earn a degree and started working as a drug counselor, helping others kick the habit. She saw herself in many of them.
Her transformation inspired Wilson to turn around his own life.
After a rocky childhood, he joined the Black Gangster Disciples gang in the 1980s and 1990s, while battling drug problems that threatened to destroy him after he moved to Minnesota.
Things started changing in 2003. Since then, Wilson has been a steady presence at homicide scenes and vigils, usually clad in camouflage and lugging a bullhorn.
His mother would send him inspirational quotes and videos every day, knowing that they kept him going.
“She was so proud to see the change for me to come from bad to good and positive, so she was like that motivating force,” Wilson said. “And not just for me, she did it for hundreds of people.”
After arriving at the hospital on Sunday, Wilson never left her side.
“I stood by her bedside from Sunday morning to 10 last night, ‘til I saw her take her last breath,” he said on Wednesday. “I held her hand and kissed her, rubbed her face, her hand and hair.”
Occasionally, his phone rang. One time, it was Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo offering words of solace. Another time, it was a colleague whose nephew had been gunned down days before in Crystal. Wilson says he briefly felt that familiar tug of wanting to be by the woman’s side as she grieved, but this time he couldn’t.
On Tuesday, the family decided to take Echols off life support.
“When I was in that hospital, it was like being a 5-year-old kid. I went from calling my mom ‘Mom,’ to ‘Mommy,’ ” he said. “I wouldn’t want nobody to feel that, bro. Nobody.”