Family and friends of Tyre Nichols will pay their final respects on Wednesday to the Black 29-year-old father whose fatal encounter with Memphis police last month transformed him into the new face of the U.S. racial justice movement.
The Rev. Al Sharpton will eulogize Nichols, and another prominent civil rights leader, attorney Ben Crump, will deliver a “call to action” during a funeral at the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Nichols’ adopted hometown of Memphis.
Among those planning to join the mourners was U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, whom Crump said the Nichols family invited. Harris spoke with Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, in a private telephone call on Tuesday, he said.
Relatives of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, two other African Americans whose deaths in 2020 at the hands of police in Louisville, Kentucky, and Minneapolis, became rallying cries for the Black Lives Matter movement, were also invited to attend.
Nichols, a FedEx worker who skateboarded and studied photography, died on Jan. 10 while hospitalized for injuries he sustained three days earlier when beaten by Memphis police who pulled him over on his way home, an incident that Crump has branded a “police lynching.”
The Memphis Police Department subsequently fired five of the officers, who also are Black, and prosecutors charged them last week with second-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, official misconduct and oppression.
Two other officers implicated in the events leading to Nichols’ death have been relieved of duty – effectively suspended – and are under investigation. Two paramedics and their on-scene supervisor were dismissed on Monday from the city fire department, while two Shelby County sheriff’s deputies have been suspended.
Police video of the confrontation released by the city on Friday showed officers dousing Nichols with pepper spray and pummeling him with punches, kicks and baton blows as he cried out for his mother. One officer was seen firing a Taser stun gun at Nichols when he attempted to flee.
The footage ends showing Nichols was left handcuffed, bloodied and slumped against the side of a police vehicle for nearly a quarter-hour before receiving medical attention.
The chief of police, Cerelyn Davis, has called the conduct seen in the video “inhumane” and said investigators have not substantiated that Nichols was driving recklessly when he was pulled over, as arresting officers asserted at the time.
Civil rights advocates and lawyers for Nichols’ family have condemned the beating as the latest case of an African American brutalized by a racially biased law enforcement system that disproportionately targets people of color, even when officers involved are non-white.
Protests stemming from Nichols’ death have been peaceful and relatively restrained in Memphis, a majority-Black city on the Mississippi River whose racial history was indelibly marked by the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during his visit there to support a local garbage workers’ strike.
Sharpton paid tribute to Nichols during a Tuesday night news conference – a kind of preamble to the funeral – at the historic Mason Temple church in Memphis where King delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on the eve of his murder.
“What happened to Tyre Nichols here is a disgrace to this country,” Sharpton told reporters, flanked by Nichols’ mother and his stepfather, Rodney Wells. “People from around the world watched the videotape of a man, unarmed, unprovoked, being beaten to death by officers of the law.”
Crump initially praised the city and local authorities for swift action in investigating the Nichols beating and bringing criminal charges, but in recent days suggested police had been less than candid with Nichols’ mother.
Nichols, who grew up in Sacramento, California, and moved to Memphis early in the COVID pandemic in 2020, was remembered by friends and family as an affable, free-spirited guy who loved skateboarding and recently enrolled in a photography class.
He had a 4-year-old son and took a daily supper break from his FedEx job to join his stepfather and co-worker for meals prepared by his mother at home, where he lived.
Antonio Romanucci, another lawyer for his family, has said Nichols also was a strong supporter of Black Lives Matter, a cause for which he gave his life, “and essentially what that makes him is a martyr.”