MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) – The sound of the djembe drums began as a low trembling and became more distinct as the players approached the hundreds gathered inside the Memphis church.
“We love you, Tire,” the drummers sang, referring to Tire 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.
When the procession reached Nichols’ black casket wrapped in a large white bouquet, the congregation in Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church stood shouting the chant in unison. Some raised clenched fists. Others scream in pain. Many grabbed handkerchiefs to dab away tears. All broadcast live on television.
Wednesday’s funeral had all the hallmarks of what’s known as a homecoming service in Black American communities: comforting gospel hymns, remembrances from loved ones, and a moving eulogy from a priest.
But as well as providing an outlet for the private mourning of Nichols’ family and friends, this ritual was also public and political. It was a place to express the shared pain of black Americans and to once again ask leaders to address an epidemic of police violence so that this time could be different.
“As we celebrate Tire’s life and comfort this family, we alert this nation that the rerun of this episode that makes the hashtags Black lives has been canceled and will not be renewed for another season,” said the Rev. J. Lawrence Turner , senior pastor of the church.
“We came and we will win,” he said.
Such funeral services are part heartfelt tribute and part rallying for civil rights: a token tax that Black Americans have paid time and time again by Emmett Till and George Floyd to those killed in mass shootings by supremacists. whites in Charleston and Buffalo.
“Bereavement comes in many forms — the form it has taken for African Americans, historically and even today, is that the grieving process for us is not silent,” said W. Franklyn Richardson, president of the Conference of National Black Churches, a public policy body and social justice organization representing predominantly black Christian denominations.
“Part of how you get healed is doing something about what happened unjustly to your loved one,” she said. “You have the opportunity, while you have the attention, to try and participate to get justice.”
Not all victims’ families welcome the attention. Some will place limits on the number of reporters and cameramen allowed at the funeral, or demand that the media be banned from reporting altogether.
But the public is rarely excluded, and funerals for Black victims of racist brutality and violence typically draw people who did not know the victim personally, from the community where the violence occurred and from across the United States.
Shirley Anderson, a lifelong Memphis resident, said she has been in mourning for Nichols since his death on Jan. 10, three days after a traffic stop by a now disbanded police unit. Released video of the arrest shows black officers holding Nichols down and repeatedly hitting him with punches, kicks and blows with batons as he screams for his mother. Five officers were charged with murder.
The thought that his three grandchildren might meet the same deaths drove Anderson to Wednesday’s service.
“Lord, have mercy! I don’t want anything that happened to Tire and so many others before Tire to happen to them,” said Anderson, 58, after the funeral ended.
Some have argued that the collective grief over Nichols’ death is compounded by the fact that his attackers were themselves black. Others have argued that the identity of the attackers is further evidence that police systems consistently produce racist outcomes, regardless of who wears the badge.
During Wednesday’s service, Nichols’ family shared details most everyone would like to remember about their loved one. As a child, Nichols was easy to care for, as long as he had a big bowl of cereal and a TV fixated on cartoons, shared by his older sister Keyana Dixon.
He loved photography. He was an avid skateboarder. He was the father of a 4 year old son.
During a eulogy, the Rev. Al Sharpton tried to assure Nichols’ mother and stepfather that their loss would not be in vain.
“I think unborn children will know about Tire Nichols because we’re not going to let his memory die,” said Sharpton, who has made such remarks dozens of times in the last decade alone.
“We will change this country because we refuse to continue living under the threat of cops and robbers.”
Elected officials typically attend these funerals to send a signal to the community that their cries for justice are not being ignored. But Vice President Kamala Harris’ presence on Wednesday was also personal. Harris, who is the nation’s first black vice president and the first of South Asian descent, spoke about black parents’ fears for their children.
“Mothers all over the world, when their babies are born, pray to God, when they hold that baby, that that body and that life will be safe for the rest of its life,” Harris said. “When we look at this situation, this is a family that has lost their son and brother, through an act of violence, at the hand and foot of people who have been tasked with keeping them safe.”
Among the most prominent examples of using such a funeral to seek justice was that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy whose 1955 Mississippi lynching catalyzed the United States civil rights movement.
His mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, requested that Emmett’s decomposing remains be taken to Chicago and placed in an open casket during 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 ultimately helped spur passage of landmark federal civil rights and child rights legislation. vote.
That example and others speak to the complexity of black grief, said civil rights leader Rev. William Barber II. It’s not just the loss of a loved one, but that they’ve been caught up in the violence that Black people have worked for decades to eradicate, only to face again, he said.
“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 intended to address structural racism in policing have withered due to partisan gridlock.
“I’m tired of tears,” Barber said. “When will America decide that death by bad public officials and public order is no longer acceptable?”
That Black Americans continue to publicly bear their grief nonetheless is a testament to the community’s understanding of what is at stake if it doesn’t grieve in this way, said Richardson, of the Conference of National Black Churches.
“There is no alternative,” he said. “There are no guarantees when you fight against injustice. But we have to expose it.”
Anderson, the Memphis grandmother, said she struggles with grief.
“It’s so hard, when you have so many murders of people who look like me,” she said. “I hope that peace will arise from this, but above all the reform of the police. Hands off my children!”
Aaron Morrison is a New York City-based member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.