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A Memphis Family is Behind a National Helpline Designed to Break Through Extremism of All Kinds

Monica Holley and her father, Melvin Bledsoe, co-founded Parents for Peace to help others recognize signs of radicalization and provide services to overcome it.
Katie Riordan
Monica Holley and her father, Melvin Bledsoe, co-founded Parents for Peace to help others recognize signs of radicalization and provide services to overcome it.

Monica Holley answers the phone at the Blues City Tours office, handling queries about parking and pricing at the sightseeing and transportation company.

She helps her father, Melvin Bledsoe, operate the small family business, which he started in 1988 and is located right down the street from Memphis’ historic Sun Studio in the Edge District.

They’re proud to introduce tourists to the city’s major attractions.

“Of course, we’ve got street signs that are named after different people — famous people in Memphis — B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King, Jr,” Bledsoe says, pointing out memorabilia displayed in the office.

In 2009, Bledsoe’s son, Carlos — 23 at the time — was part of the company’s branch expansion to Little Rock, Ark. He had expressed interest in taking over the business from his father one day.

But, then the unimaginable happened, Holley says.

Carlos opened fire with an assault rifle outside a Little Rock Army recruiting center. He killed a soldier, William “Andy” Long, and injured another in what he professed was an act of jihad.

His sister was devastated.

“It was always playing in the back of my mind like what could I have done different?,” Holley says. “When I talked to him, could I have…did I miss something? Did I miss a sign?”

His family says Carlos’ conversion to Islam from Christianity several years earlier followed a turbulent period in his life, including the need to stay out of trouble to avoid a prison sentence for a weapons charge. So they offered support despite some questions as he became increasingly devout.

Family members describe Carlos Bledsoe, also known as Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, as funny and happy-go-lucky growing up.
Katie Riordan
Family members describe Carlos Bledsoe, also known as Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, as funny and happy-go-lucky growing up.

Along the way, he changed his name to Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (although the family still calls him Carlos).

“We didn’t know that he was being radicalized, we felt like, you know, he’s a teenager trying to find himself,” says Holley

In 2007, he traveled to Yemen, he told his family, to teach English. He was later arrested there with an expired visa and a fake Somali passport, eventually deported and questioned by the FBI. Still, his father never suspected he returned capable of violence.

“He was manipulated, brainwashed, hoodwinked – changed his behavior, changed his thoughts,” Bledsoe says.

In the years after the shooting, they felt isolated. So Bledsoe and his daughter developed a mission: to prevent future tragedies by helping others recognize signs of radicalization and creating services to overcome it.

“It could happen to anyone,” Bledsoe says.

In 2015, they co-founded Parents for Peace, a nonprofit run in Boston and led by Myrieme Churchill, a psychotherapist.

The group started a national confidential helpline – akin to those used for domestic violence or suicide – to guide concerned parents or others struggling to grasp or respond when someone exhibits extremist thoughts or actions or joins a hate group.

They field calls about a spectrum of ideologies: from white supremacy to jihadism to ecoterrorism and Antifa, to name a few. Churchill notes that some individuals even vacillate between belief systems.

“Extremism, radicalization is really from grievances, and so hate groups are being successful because they speak to that pain. They speak to that grievance, and they exploit it,” she says.  

The Parents for Peace model is politically neutral and tries to address the problem using a public health philosophy focused on prevention. They look at why, for some, extremist ideas take root

“Being radicalized with a group that provides for them purpose, a place to belong, they are being heard — it’s very hard to quit that because they finally found something that makes them feel better,” Churchill says.

“It’s hard to kind of think of extremism as a coping mechanism but it is one, the same way people reach out to booze and drugs to numb a pain” she adds. “That’s why some people are hooked into it.”

While they work with people from all kinds of backgrounds, Churchill says young men appear to be especially vulnerable to the bait of extremism.

Calls on the helpline were up almost 60 percent in 2023 from the year before with more than 700. Demand has increased so much that until the small non-profit expanded their team of interventionists recently, they had a wait-list for follow-up services.

In a signal of their growing reach, Churchill says, they’ve been getting more inquiries from people like district attorneys and school professionals seeking input.

The organization’s program director, Kevin Lambert, says it can be difficult for family members to make that initial phone call, but he says they’re not alone. Parents for Peace also runs support groups for families to talk about their experiences.

A photo that Melvin Bledsoe keeps at his office of him and his son.
Katie Riordan
A photo that Melvin Bledsoe keeps at his office of him and his son.

Some may feel ashamed by the hateful things their loved ones are saying or doing. They might be afraid of breaching a loved one’s privacy or feel powerless. The group tries to break down those barriers.

Lambert says lashing out at or debating extreme viewpoints doesn’t work.

“We’re never going to pull someone out of these movements by having an ideological debate that has to be rooted in cited sources and has to be factual,” he says. “That’s not how people got pulled into these movements in the first place. They’re emotional.”

He coaches families to ask questions and listen — using what he calls “compassionate curiosity" — for how ideologies could be filling an emotional need

He stresses that every situation is different.

“Understand that their beliefs don’t make up everything of who they are as a person,” Lambert says. “They still retain a strong sense of personhood, and you need to value that as hard as it may be sometimes to listen and hear someone that you love very deeply talk about horrific things.”

If there’s an imminent threat of violence, the organization recommends law enforcement.

But the objective is for families to help steer someone on a path away from extremism by addressing any underlying issues and helping them find purpose and meaning outside the ideology. The process, if successful, can take months or even years.

One of Parents for Peace’s most powerful resources, Churchill says, are former extremists themselves who work as what are called peer-exit specialists to advise others on life afterwards.

“Remember that former extremists have a credible voice, more than anyone,” Churchill says

Intervention came too late for Carlos Bledsoe, although he’s since apologized for the murder. He’s currently serving a life sentence at a prison in Arkansas.

But the lessons his family learned now inform the work of Parents for Peace.

“We didn’t have anyone to turn to to say, ‘Okay, we think something may be going [on], but we don’t know…how can you direct us in the right steps?’” Holley says. “But we have that now for people that are experiencing what we’ve experienced.”

Sharing the family's story has helped her father heal.

“If you’ve got a problem: someone is trying to take your loved one, someone is trying to recruit your family member, take them away from you. You’ve got help,” Bledsoe says. “Call us.”

He says someone is ready to answer.

If you are concerned about a loved one's extreme beliefs or behaviors, you can reach Parents for Peace at 844-49-PEACE (844-497-3223) or help@parents4peace.org.

Katie is a part-time WKNO contributor. She's always eager to hear your story ideas. You can email her at kriordan@wkno.org