There he was, standing in the midst of a grief stricken crowd in the community of Maplewood, New Jersey. Not a resident himself of the suburban town but close enough to empathize with those reeling from the tragic deaths of two young Black men in an automobile accident. Minister Thomas Ellis is on a mission to stem the violence in the African-American community and to save lives, particularly those of the young who have barely had a chance to experience life. In this small town outside of Newark he came to do what he always does: comfort those left behind and share a ‘word’ to those willing to listen to his plea to end the violent acts decimating the Black community.
Minister Ellis is the founder and spirit behind the “Enough is Enough Coalition against Guns and Violence,” and when you talk to him you quickly realize his work is a ministry and not a vocation.
To understand Thomas Ellis, you need to know something about his journey. Born in Harlem and a product of the New York City public school system, Ellis landed in the Air Force after receiving his high school diploma. Upon receiving an honorable discharge from the service he went to work at the mecca of “uptown” entertainment, the Apollo Theatre in his native Harlem. His life took an unexpected turn or two and he wound up in Atlanta in the early 90s, without family and eking out a living. It was in Atlanta that fate put him on his current path and he sensed his mission in life.
In April 1993 an Atlanta teenager, 13 year-old Tiffany Harderson was struck and killed by a stray bullet. Upon reading about the young girl, Ellis made his way to her home to offer his support, though not knowing what he could actually do but moved by the tragedy. He was introduced to the Hardeson family by Tiffany’s friends who Ellis ran into when he stepped off the city bus en route to her home. From that moment forward he dedicated his life to being a voice against violence.
Following the Harderson tragedy, Ellis founded the “Enough is Enough Coalition against Guns and Violence” as a vehicle for his advocacy against violence. As part of his efforts he established a parents support group, Parents of Murdered Children or POMY, and instituted a pre-Thanksgiving Memorial dinner in honor of the victims of violence.
He joined the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and was the co-coordinator of the civil rights group’s Stop the Killing Campaign under the tutelage of civil rights icon Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery. He later served on the staff of Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell as a community resource specialist.
His explanation for his commitment to oppose violence is simple in its clarity yet profound in its reliance on faith. “Somebody has to do something,” suggests Ellis, “God has called me to do outreach ministry. If you are a Christian you should be compelled to do something.” When he is speaking about the need to stem violence in the African-American community, it is clear Minister Thomas Ellis is a true believer in the idea that he has been called to this task. He confirms, “I don’t move on anything unless I hear the voice of God. He gives me the tools to do the work He has assigned me. In 20 years of doing this work I have never received government funding or a foundation grant.”
Minister Ellis knows very well the perils many face today as he has had his own brush with violence. On New Year’s Eve in 1997 he was shot multiple times, the victim of an attempted robbery and left for dead on a street in Atlanta. After recuperating in the city’s Grady Hospital he returned to New York but wound up moving to Newark in April 1998. While still making a painful recovery from the shooting, he re-established the “Enough is Enough Coalition” and based it in New Jersey’s largest city. He has been a consistent voice against violence ever since and has organized countless vigils and rallies not only in Newark but around the country to call attention to the bloodshed in the community. His services were called into action in 2007 after the tragic killing of three college students, Terrance Aeriel, 18, Dashon Harvey, 20, and 20 year-old Iofemi Hightower, in a playground behind a Newark school that received national attention and put a spotlight on violence in the city. The three young people were students at Delaware State University home for the summer and within weeks of returning to the campus for the fall semester. Their violent deaths even shocked a city that has seen more than its share of bloodshed and loss of life.
“It’s simple,” reflects Ellis, “If you don’t do anything, you won’t get anything.” Minister Ellis has put that mantra into practice, coaching and volunteering with the Ivy Hill Little League, in the same neighborhood that the college students were slain. He is particularly proud that his “Monarchs” have won back-to-back championships. Ellis has also created a T-ball team, the “Tigers.”
This month he will do as he has done the past 19 years; hold his pre-Thanksgiving Memorial dinner on November 26 and his Christmas toy give away for surviving siblings of victims of violence. And if you are at either event you will likely catch him doing what he has done for two decades: comforting those left behind and sharing a ‘word’ to those willing to listen to his plea to end the violent acts decimating the Black community.