07/17/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
AT 4 P.M. ON A THURSDAY AFTERNOON, TALK SHOW HOST Lorna Hawkins is in Continental Cablevision's bare-bones studio in Los Angeles, listening intently to a pair of women who, like herself, are middle-aged mothers from the violence-torn neighborhood of South Central. Coaxed by the plain-spoken Hawkins, Joy Turner describes the emptiness she has felt since her son Hank, 19, was murdered outside a friend's house in 1989. Hawkins leans forward sympathetically. "It's as if someone tore the roof off the house and snatched a part of you," she says. "And there's nothing you can do about it."
Hawkins, 43, speaks from experience. Galvanized by the death of her firstborn, Joe—just 21 when he was gunned down by strangers in 1988—she walked to her local cable TV station two months after the murder and persuaded the director of community programming to give her 30 minutes of public-access time to share her story. From that halting but poignant segment grew Drive-By Agony, a half-hour program now telecast twice a week to the service's 45,000 local subscribers. Its cathartic mission: letting those who have lost loved ones air their grief and anger. "A lot of women I've met don't know what to do with their pain—they just say, 'I want to die,' " says Hawkins (who also has invited grief counselors, law-enforcement officials and community activists to share their perspectives on violence). "I try to make them feel they're not alone."
Hawkins's own trials did not end with Joe's death. On March 30, 1992, her son, Gerald, 22, was accosted at a phone booth by two men who demanded his car keys. When he balked, they shot him in the stomach. Hours later, he died. "It was like the devil was saying to me, 'Who do you think you are, trying to make people stop the violence?' " Hawkins recalls. "But I've been going like a crazy woman ever since."
Her personal losses have transformed Hawkins into a fierce spokeswoman for victims of violence in L.A., where gang-related attacks claim more than 700 lives each year. Dubbed the Oprah
Winfrey of South Central by Sherrie Mazingo, head of the broadcast-journalism program at the University of Southern California, she has become a hero in a neighborhood where few households are untouched by street crime. In the last six years, Hawkins has founded a small survivors' support group, organized a high-profile annual peace march, spoken at schools and lobbied California lawmakers for tougher anticrime legislation. "Her strength and energy are phenomenal," says Carol Ann Taylor, who told her story on Drive-By Agony after her son Willie, 17, was shot by a stranger in 1993. "I walked into her office four weeks after he died, and she embraced me. She was the catalyst for getting me on my feet."
Raised in Long Beach, Calif., where her father, Albert Brady, was a preacher and her mother, Rose, a housewife, Hawkins (the fifth of seven children) dropped out of high school in 1967, when she was 15. Five years later she married maintenance worker Frank Hawkins, now 48, and they moved into a two-bedroom house in Lynwood. By 1988, gangs and drugs had taken over the streets: On Nov. 23, son Joe, an auto-body repairman, left the house for a walk at about 8 p.m. Minutes later, Lorna and Frank heard their 16-year-old daughter, Francie, scream. "We ran around the corner," Lorna remembers. "That's where we saw him, lying down. Blood was everywhere."
Described to police only as four men in a midsize car, Joe's murderers were never caught; later, Hawkins heard from neighbors that the assailants had apparently mistaken Joe for a member of a rival gang. Furious, she called reporters at the Los Angeles Times to urge them to write about the shooting. "They said, 'I'm sorry, ma'am, this happens all the time,' " she remembers.
"Praying on what I could do," she says, she had an inspiration: "I had seen public-access TV, and it just came to me." Given her first half-hour in January 1989, Hawkins taped a show in which she talked about Joe's death, then interviewed a sheriff's deputy about crime in her area. "It was a coping thing for myself," she says. "But I also wanted to provide an avenue for people who were in the same kind of pain." The first program drew dozens of phone calls and letters. "I thought maybe three months and it would be over with," she says. "But people kept getting in touch with me, saying, 'I had a friend who was shot,' or, 'I know someone who should be on your show' "
These days Hawkins works from a windowless office in the Lynwood Youth Activity Center. There she organizes her lobbying efforts, fields speaking requests and meets with others whose grief is fresh. And while her pain will never go away, she takes comfort in knowing she is helping reconstruct the lives of others. "If she hadn't gone in the direction she did—healing—I don't know if I would be able to talk to young people any more. I was angry at all of them," says husband Frank. "I take my hat off to my lady every day."
KURT PITZLR in Lynwood