Sunday should have been a day of celebration for Austin Wanzo, but instead of showering him with gifts on what would have been his 21st birthday, his family, friends and classmates were sending balloons into the air from the ground where he succumbed to gunshot wounds earlier this summer.

“I want to thank everybody who took out their time to come out and celebrate our son’s birthday,” Austin’s father Randall Wanzo said as he stood on a sidewalk on Moore Avenue surrounded by people wearing shirts with Austin’s face and face masks with his name. “I remember when he was born. Today he would have been 21 years old, but 12 weeks and 12 hours ago, his life was taken.”

Wanzo died in the early morning hours of Father’s Day while he was sitting in his car, which was parked about at the corner of Summit Street and Higgins Drive. He ran after being shot and collapsed about a block away.

He was a North Pike High School graduate who was attending Copiah-Lincoln Community College and working at Sanderson Farms when he died.

Lacurtis Hackett, 20, of Summit, has been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting.

Randall Wanzo said the grief of losing a son so young has been unbearable.

“I’ve heard people getting killed before. When it comes to your front doorstep it gets real live then,” he said. “I never tied my son to being murdered.”

As a summer of protests sparked by the deaths of young Black men at the hands of police comes to a close, his father said people should look inward and find a solution to end violence that takes the lives of young Black men far too often.

“On this earth we have some troubled people. … I say that to tell y’all be careful, especially our young Black men,” he said. “If the police comes in here now and kills one of us, we’ll be mad, and we should be mad. … But we’ll kill 300 of our own people. We kill each other. That’s what we do.”

The toll of violence doesn’t end when a life is snuffed out, he said, describing the constant anguish that shrouds his family.

“You hurt your own family and you hurt the family of the kid you killed,” he said.

“I never thought my son would be gone right now,” Randall Wanzo said. “My wife, I’ll be at work and I’ll call her on my lunch break, and when I call her, she’ll be crying. Every single day. I didn’t know a human being had that many tears. There’s nothing I can do about it. I can just try to comfort her with words.”

Austin’s little sister, McKinnley “Lulu,” turned 9 in the weeks since her brother died.

“She still texts him right now,” Randall Wanzo said as the young girl wept. “He was a real brother to her, now. He made sure she did her homework right. He said, ‘Don’t you be over at that school messing my name up.’ ”

Austin’s sister Kristen made the drive from Texas, where she works as a psychologist — a profession in which she helps people cope with the same kind of grief she’s experiencing.

Randall Wanzo lamented the violence that’s become all too common.

“You shouldn’t have to tote a gun and live among each other. We’re not at war,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to walk in your own community with a gun on your side.”

As a father, he believes he should teach his youngest daughter another life skill — how to protect herself with a gun.

“A child has also got to know how to shoot. Ain’t that something? It shouldn’t be that way,” he said.

Karen Wanzo thanked everyone for helping her get through the difficult summer.

“I really don’t think I could have made it through this without y’all’s support and the love y’all showed me through this,” she said. “I cry every day and it has been so hard to lose my child. Anybody that knows me knows how much I love my children. … To lose him the way we lost him ...

“He should still be here with us. … I wouldn’t want this kind of pain wished on anybody.”

Austin’s older brother, Randall Wanzo Jr., said he’s lost a friend as well as a brother.

“I’m glad everybody came here to check on my little brother, cause I know right now he’s in heaven,” he said. “If God came down to this spot right here, I’d say let my little brother have my life.”

Pastor Burnell Robinson, who led a procession of motorcyclists to the memorial, prayed over Wanzo’s family.

“Bless this family, bless this occasion, make this be a celebration,” he said.  

Another motorcyclist, Pastor Darryl Hilliard, urged those in attendance to surrender their soul to Christ if they haven’t already, noting how life can be cut short.  

As men hanging out in a parking lot across the street shouted and argued with one another, Hilliard prayed for peace.

He noted that this isn’t the first time he’s attended a memorial of someone who died due to violence in the same area.

“Why are we back here at this corner? We were here the last time,” he said.

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