I'M GONNA go ahead and admit that the first time I met Linda Wilder Bryan, she kind of scared me.
It was during the sparky 2015 City Council elections, in the midst of what would be Savannah’s bloodiest year in decades, with 53 homicides and hundreds of shootings. Nationally, the Ferguson protests continued to echo in the deaths of Eric Garner and Sandra Bland, and the rising Black Lives Matter movement stepped to the national stage.
It was rousing to witness an empowered, organized uprising, yet unnerving to imagine what could happen if the tinderbox blew.
Linda was challenging incumbent Carol Bell for Alderman-at-Large Post 1, and the political newbie came to the Connect office for a candidate interview. I’d been asking the same ol’ questions I asked everyone else when she slammed her hand on the conference table.
“You want to call me an angry black woman? Fine. Because that’s exactly what I am.”
She had damn good reason to be furious. Her 23 year-old son, Lawrence Bryan IV, had been murdered just two months before, and no arrest had been made. Through the support group Mothers of Murdered Sons (MOMS), she had discovered that there were over 200 other killings of young black men that remained unsolved throughout the city.
A lifelong Savannahian, Linda understood that poverty and lack of opportunity are the roots of crime here, and she’d had enough of leaders examining their fingernails as the bullets flew.
“A lot of the departments aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do. I want to hold them accountable,” she declared to me back then. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, just hold people responsible.”
Though at first startled by her outrage, I recognized the intelligent irreverence of an effective change agent and the fierce agony of a mother in distress. By the end of our interview, I was holding back tears and hugging her. (I cannot say the same for the rest of that year’s candidates.)
Linda lost the election by a few thousand votes, but she quickly gained solid footing as a community influencer to be reckoned with. In addition to forming the LB4 & After Foundation with her husband, Lawrence Bryan III, in 2016, she led several “die-in”s around the city for all those murdered sons that hit national newsfeeds, much to local chagrin, and helped herd hundreds of Savannahians to the Women’s March on Washington earlier this year.
A sandspur in the side of the status quo, she’s not afraid to speak her mind or type it out in all caps on social media, usually accompanied by a barrage of emojis (fistbumps and “I’m watchin’ you” eyeballs are well-employed favorites).
I’ve come to know Linda as a generous, committed activist who tempers her anguish with faithful admonitions to “Watch God, Be God” and big belly laughs that shake the oaks.
This week marks the second anniversary of Lawrence IV’s death. Cultural and political tones have not improved in this great new America, and Savannah is still raw from the horror of the shootings and killings on the Fourth of July. Yet somehow, it feels less like a tinderbox than a country full of communities like ours that are seeking, beseeching, for solutions.
I met Linda for lunch last week to talk about the solutions she has championed since our last official interview. She’s traded out the candidate suits and styled hair for a T-shirt bearing her son’s face and natural gray baby locs, a look that makes her seem softer and more serious all at once.
“The election was never really about winning, it was about having a voice,” she explains. “The goal is to improve the quality of life for all of Savannah’s children in measurable ways.”
True to her admonition not to reinvent any wheels, she’s pounded the streets and keyboard to create partnerships with established entities, notably Operation Beacon, a new program calling for citizens to volunteer in local schools. She joined the board of the Dept. of Cultural Affairs to advocate for more art and enrichment activities for local kids, and last year she and MOMS helped convince SCMPD to establish a Cold Case Unit dedicated to pursuing justice for those unsolved murders.
There’s also the LB4 & After Foundation, which is sponsoring its second annual Celebration of Life Festival and Back to School Giveaway this Sunday, August 6 at Forsyth Park. All are invited to come make a plate and delight in the bouncy houses, and those in need can pick up new and gently used uniforms, school supplies and free haircuts.
Former national PTA president Otha Thornton, SCCPSS superintendent Ann Levett, and Sheriff John Wilcher will speak to the importance of education in addressing community violence, and there are 30 shiny new bikes for the winners of an essay contest focusing on how crime has impacted their lives. (Donations for the giveaway are still being accepted.)
The festival is in memory of Lawrence’s death, and Linda admits that her prodigious organizing helps stave off the sadness.
“It’s all kept me very busy, so I still really haven’t had the time to grieve,” she sighs.
Though the heartache will never quite heal, the Bryans have finally had some closure: This July, convicted felon Timone Hooper, already serving a six-year sentence in a federal penitentiary in Jesup for illegally possessing a firearm, was indicted for their son’s murder.
“We want the families to know we never give up,” lead detective Sgt. Robert Santoro told WSAV after Hooper’s arrest last February.
Now that the case is closed, Linda has no intentions of letting go of her dogged pursuit of justice for other parents. She supports the recent dissolution of the county and city police departments, saying it will allow each to focus on its particular problems, and she made the news again recently for her Facebook takedown of Judge Harris Odell, Jr., who has been criticized for granting low bonds to felons caught with guns.
On Jul. 20, Judge Harris’ attorney issued a demand for a public retraction of Linda’s “slanderous” post, which castigates the judge for letting off repeat offenders to commit more crimes and includes a string of poop emojis.
Linda stands by her judgment and has no intention of stepping back from what she says is hard truth.
“Hell no, I’m not taking down the post.You know how many people who’d like me to apologize to them for calling them out? she snorts. “Get in line.”
Then, more quietly, she adds, “There isn’t anything anyone can do to hurt me that hasn’t already been done.”
That unflinching stance has won her more community support than censure, and the Notorious LWB promises to continue the work of bridging black and white, wealthy and poor, politically active and staunchly apathetic and stake out the common ground for real solutions. She's got her eyeballs on 2019, when she plans to run for local office again.
While the pain of loss remains, it has not made her bitter. Our lunch is punctuated with uproarious laughter, and we spend a good bit of time talking about the joy she gets from spending time with her grown daughters, Logan and Lindsey, and Lawrence IV’s four year-old son, who she calls “lil’ LB5.”
“I’m still mad, but love and faith are bigger,” she says, nodding upward.
“And my faith is in Savannah. People care about each other here, and we will prevail.”