At Nichols’ funeral, Black America’s grief on public display
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The sound of the djembe drums started as a low tremble and grew more distinct as the musicians drew closer to the hundreds gathered inside the Memphis church.
“We love you, Tyre,” the drummers chanted, referring to Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man whose beating by five police officers led to his death and this funeral on the first day of Black History Month.
By the time the procession reached Nichols’ black casket draped in a large white bouquet, the congregation in the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church was on its feet shouting the chant in unison. Some raised clenched fists. Others let out screams of grief. Many grabbed tissues to dab at tears. All of it streamed live on television.
The funeral on Wednesday had all the hallmarks of what’s known as a homegoing service in Black American communities: comforting gospel hymns, remembrances from loved ones and a stirring eulogy from a clergyman.
But in addition to offering an outlet for the private mourning of Nichols’ family and friends, this ritual was also public and political. It was a venue to air the shared grief of Black Americans — and to once again call for leaders to address an epidemic of police violence so that this time might be different.
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“As we celebrate Tyre’s life and comfort this family, we serve notice to this nation that the rerun of this episode that makes Black lives hashtags has been canceled and will not be renewed for another season,” said the Rev. J. Lawrence Turner, senior pastor of the church.
“We have come and we shall overcome,” he said.
Such funeral services are one part heartfelt tribute and one part civil rights rally — a symbolic tax Black Americans have paid time and again from Emmett Till and George Floyd to those killed in mass shootings by white supremacists in Charleston and Buffalo.
“Grieving has many forms — the form that it’s taken for African Americans, historically and even today, is that the grieving process for us is not silent,” said W. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of The Conference of National Black Churches, a public policy and social justice organization that represents predominantly Black Christian denominations.
“Part of the way you get healed is to do something about what has happened to your loved one unfairly,” he said. “You have the opportunity, while you have the attention, to try to participate in getting justice.”
Not all victims’ families welcome the attention. Some will put limits on the number of journalists and cameras allowed into the funeral, or ask that media be prohibited from the service altogether.
But the public is rarely shut out, and funerals for Black victims of brutality and racist violence typically draw people who did not personally know the victim — from the community where the violence occurred and from across the U.S.
Shirley Anderson, a lifelong resident of Memphis, said she had been grieving over Nichols since his death on Jan. 10, three days after a traffic stop by a now-disbanded police unit. Video released of the stop shows Black officers holding Nichols down and repeatedly punching him, kicking him and striking him with batons as he screamed for his mother. Five officers have been charged with murder.
The thought that her three grandsons could meet the same demise brought Anderson to Wednesday’s service.
“Lord, have mercy! I don’t want nothing to happen to them that’s happened to Tyre and so many before Tyre,” Anderson, 58, said after the funeral ended.
Some have argued that the collective grief in Nichols’ death is compounded by the fact that his attackers were themselves Black. Others have countered that the attackers’ identity is more evidence that systems of policing continually produce racist outcomes, no matter who wears the badge.
During Wednesday’s service, Nichols’ family shared details that almost anyone would want remembered about their loved one. As a kid, Nichols was easy to care for, as long as he had a big bowl of cereal and the TV fixed on cartoons, his older sister Keyana Dixon shared.
He loved photography. He was an avid skateboarder. He was father to a 4-year-old son.
During a eulogy, the Rev. Al Sharpton sought to assure Nichols’ mother and stepfather that their loss won’t be in vain.
“I believe that babies unborn will know about Tyre Nichols because we won’t let his memory die,” said Sharpton who, in just the last decade, has delivered remarks on such occasion dozens of times.
“We’re going to change this country because we refuse to keep living under the threat of the cops and the robbers.”
Elected officials typically attend these funerals to send a signal to the community that their cries for justice aren’t being ignored. But Vice President Kamala Harris’ presence Wednesday was also personal. Harris, who is the nation’s first Black vice president and the first of South Asian descent, spoke of the fears of Black parents for their children.
“Mothers around the world, when their babies are born, pray to God, when they hold that child, that that body and that life will be safe for the rest of his life,” Harris said. “When we look at this situation, this is a family that lost their son and their brother, through an act of violence, at the hands and the feet of people who have been charged with keeping them safe.”
Among the most prominent examples of using such a funeral to call for justice was that of Emmett Till, a Black 14-year-old whose lynching in Mississippi in 1955 catalyzed the U.S. civil rights movement.
His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, demanded that Emmett’s decomposing remains be taken back home to Chicago and placed in an open casket at a funeral attended by tens of thousands. Till-Mobley’s mission to spread Emmett’s story, as only a heartbroken mother could, galvanized calls for justice and eventually helped spur passage of landmark federal civil rights and voting rights legislation.
That example and others speak to the complexity of Black grief, said civil rights leader the Rev. William Barber II. It’s not just the loss of the loved one, but that they were taken by violence that Black people have worked for decades to eradicate, only to face it again, he said.
“The grieving is so multifaceted,” said Barber, who is president of the Repairers of the Breach, a faith-based social justice nonprofit, and founding director of the Center for Public Theology & Public Policy at Yale Divinity School.
While a smattering of law enforcement reforms has been enacted, countless proposed measures meant to address structural racism in policing have shriveled due to partisan gridlock.
“I’m tired of the tears,” Barber said. “When will America decide that death from bad public officials and public policy is no longer acceptable?”
That Black Americans nevertheless continue to bear their pain publicly is a testament to the community’s understanding of what’s at stake if it doesn’t grieve in this way, said Richardson, of The Conference of National Black Churches.
“There’s no alternative,” he said. “There are no guarantees when you fight against injustice. But we have to expose it.”
Anderson, the Memphis-based grandmother, said she struggles to not let grief overtake her.
“It’s so hard, when you’ve got so many killings of people who look just like me,” she said. “I hope peace comes from this, but most of all police reform. Keep your hands up off my children!”