MLK invoked as Tyre Nichols’ life is celebrated in Memphis

Feb 1, 2023, 1:30 PM | Updated: 4:46 pm

Tyre Nichols...

Photo of Tyre Nichols Provided by Ben Crump

(CNN) — Mourners, from Vice President Kamala Harris to the activist the Rev. Al Sharpton, on Wednesday celebrated the life of Tyre Nichols, whose death at the hands of police in Memphis led to second-degree murder charges against five officers.

“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 to applause during Nichols’ funeral service in a packed Memphis sanctuary.

“And 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 had been charged with keeping them safe.”

Nichols, 29, who was Black, was subdued yet continuously beaten after a traffic stop by Memphis police on January 7. He died three days later.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, in a painfully familiar role, delivered an impassioned eulogy that paid tribute to Nichols’ life and served as a clarion call for justice.

Sharpton said he visited the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. He called out the five Black former officers charged in Nichols’ death.

“There’s nothing more insulting and offensive, to those of us that fight to open doors, that you walked through those doors and act like the folks we had to fight for to get you through them doors. You didn’t get on the police department by yourself,” Sharpton said.

Sharpton said he believes that if Nichols had been white “you wouldn’t have beat him like that,” referring to the five former officers.

“You don’t fight crime by becoming criminals yourself… That ain’t the police. That’s punks.”

The reverend invoked King’s 1968 “Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, where King said he had reached the peak and seen the Promised Land. The former cops accused of killing Nichols, he said, failed to live up to King’s legacy. “He expected you to bring us on to the Promised Land,” Sharpton said.

For the day, mourners at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church shifted the focus from the heart-wrenching footage of the beating that Nichols in a hospital bed with his face badly swollen and bruised before his death, sparking protests across the country.

Harris was joined other senior level Biden administration officials, including White House Director for the Office of Public Engagement Keisha Lance Bottoms, former mayor of Atlanta, and Senior Advisor to the President Mitch Landrieu.

Representing other Black people killed by police, Tamika Palmer — whose daughter Breonna Taylor was fatally shot in her Louisville, Kentucky, home by police during a botched raid in March 2020 — attended the service.

Live Updates: Tyre Nichols’ funeral service

Also in attendance was Philonise Floyd, the younger brother of George Floyd, whose name reverberated across the nation following his May 2020 death after an ex-cop Minneapolis cop knelt on his neck and back for more than 9 minutes.

“The family needs all the support that they can get,” Gwen Carr, whose son, Eric Garner, died after being placed in a chokehold by an NYPD officer in 2014, told CNN Wednesday before attending the service. “It’s so fresh for them but for me, it just digs into old wounds.”

The service was scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. local time but was pushed back because of bad weather and travel delays. It began shortly after 1 p.m. on the first day of Black History Month with African tribal drummers and a gospel choir.

With Nichols’ black casket, draped in a white bouquet of flowers, as a centerpiece, the young man was praised by the Rev. J. Lawrence Turner as “a good person, a beautiful soul, a son, a father, a brother, a friend, a human being — gone too soon.”

Mourners watched slide shows of a smiling Nichols at different times in his life. A photo montage opened with a quote from Nichols: “My vision is to bring my viewers deep into what I am seeing through my eye and out through my lens.”

Tiffany Rachal, the mother of Jalen Randle, a 29-year-old Black man killed by a Houston police officer last year, offered her condolences to the family before singing, “Lord I will lift my eyes to the hills.”

On Tuesday, Sharpton and Nichols’ family gathered at the Mason Temple Church of God In Christ headquarters in Memphis — where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famed “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech the night before he was killed.

“We will continue in Tyre’s name to head up to Martin’s mountaintop,” Sharpton said from the “sacred ground” where MLK delivered his speech 55 years ago.

Sharpton said Nichols’ fatal police beating “is a disgrace to this country.”

“People from around the world watched the videotape of a man — unarmed, unprovoked — being beat to death by officers of the law,” Sharpton said.

Sharpton reflected on the family’s loss as their son’s name is added to a vast pantheon of Black people who died after encounters with police.

“They will never ever recover from the loss,” Sharpton said.

Nichols’ brother, Jamal Dupree, said his brother would have wanted peace during this latest struggle for justice.

“My brother was the most peaceful person you ever met,” Dupree said. “If my brother was here today and he had to say something, he would tell us to do this peacefully.”

Before Wednesday’s service, Dan Beazley, 61, carried a towering wooden cross over his shoulder outside the Memphis church. He said he drove 12 hours through an ice storm from Northville, Michigan, to pay his respects and shine a light.

Nichols has been described as a devoted son who had tattooed his mother’s name on his arm, a loving father to a 4-year-old boy, and a free spirit with a passion for skateboarding and capturing sunsets on his camera.

Public outrage over the disturbing arrest video led to firings or disciplinary action against other public servants who were at the scene, including the firings of three Memphis Fire Department personnel. Two sheriff’s deputies have been put on leave. Additionally, two more police officers have been placed on leave.

Nichols’ funeral service will take place less than a week after Friday evening’s public release of footage of the attack on Nichols shook a nation long accustomed to videos of police brutality, especially against people of color. The five officers charged with Nichols’ death are Black.

The brutal attack sparked largely peaceful protests from New York to Los Angeles as well as renewed calls for police reform and scrutiny of specialized police units that target guns in high crime areas.

Nichols was the baby of his family, the youngest of four children, according to his mother, RowVaughn Wells, who has said he usually spent Sundays doing laundry and preparing for the week.

He moved to Memphis from California right before the Covid-19 pandemic and remained there after the mandatory lockdowns prompted by the health crisis, his mother has said.

Nichols was a regular at a Germantown, Tennessee, Starbucks where he befriended a group of people who set aside their cellphones at a table and talked mostly about sports, particularly his beloved San Francisco 49ers, according to friend Nate Spates Jr.

His visits to Starbucks were typically followed by a nap before heading to a his job at FedEx. He would come home for dinner during his break. His favorite dish: his mom’s homemade sesame chicken.

Nichols was also a fixture among the skateboarders at Shelby Farms Park, where he photographed memorable sunsets, according to his mother.

In fact, taking pictures served as a form of self-expression that writing could never capture for Nichols, who had written on his photography website that it helped him look “at the world in a more creative way.”

He preferred capturing landscapes.

“I hope to one day let people see what i see and to hopefully admire my work based on the quality and ideals of my work,” he wrote.

Before moving to Memphis, Nichols lived in Sacramento, California, where a friend recalled that “skating gave him wings.”

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MLK invoked as Tyre Nichols’ life is celebrated in Memphis