The Rev. Al Sharpton, in a stirring eulogy at Nichols’ funeral, recalled the history of what happened in Memphis in 1968 and how King’s dream had been trampled on by the Black police officers who beat Nichols to death.
Sharpton described how, earlier in the day, he had taken his youngest daughter, Ashley, to the Lorraine Hotel to look at the spot where Dr. King had died. And turning to Nichols’ mother and stepfather, Sharpton said:
And here we are Ashley, 55 years later, looking at the balcony where Martin Luther King shed his blood for city workers, for Black city workers to be able to work in the police department, work in sanitation. And the reason why, Mr. and Mrs. Wells, what happened to Tyre is so personal to me is that five Black men that wouldn’t have had a job in the police department — would not ever be thought of to be in the elite squad — in the city that Dr. King lost his life, nor far away from that balcony, you beat a Brother to death.
There’s nothing more insulting and offensive to those of us that fight to open doors, that you walk through those doors and act like the folks we had to fight to get you through them doors.
You didn’t get on the police department by yourself. The police chief didn’t get there by herself. People had to march and go to jail and some lost their lives to open the doors for you and how dare you act like that sacrifice was for nothing?
And then he asked:
In the city that they slayed the Dreamer, what has happened to the Dream?
In the city where the Dreamer laid down and shed his blood, you have the unmitigated gall to beat your Brother, chase him down and beat him some more? Call for backup and they take 20 minutes and you watch him and you are too busy talking among each other, no empathy, no concern? If you read the story of Joseph, when his brothers threw him in the pit nobody came to help him like nobody came to help Tyre - waiting on ambulance service that didn’t show up until it’s too late.
What will happen to his Dream?
In his eulogy, Sharpton described how God had lifted Joseph from the pit. And he said, “I believe that God will take Tyre out of that pit and use him as a symbol for justice all over this country.”
Sharpton recalled how King died in Memphis in 1968. Those events are worth recalling at the start of Black History Month. King first came to the city to support the striking sanitation workers on March 18, where he addressed 25,000 people packing the Mason Temple. He told the striking sanitation workers:
“You are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down.”
King returned to Memphis on March 28, to join thousands of people in a march down Beale Street. Many of the participants—striking workers, their families, and supporters—held signs declaring, “I Am a Man.”
King had to call off the march after violence erupted. Members of a militant Black youth group began breaking store windows. Police moved in and started beating people, even spraying mace and clubbing demonstrators who had sought sanctuary inside the Clayborn Temple.
More than 200 people were arrested, dozens were injured, and a Black teenager, Larry Payne, was shot and killed by a police officer who accused him of looting. A curfew was imposed and 4,000 National Guard troops were deployed to patrol the streets.
King’s aides were divided over whether he should return to Memphis, given the threats and rising tension, but he was determined to continue his nonviolent struggle for economic justice. He arrived in Memphis on April 3. Although he was feeling ill, he was persuaded to speak to a crowd of people who had braved a storm to hear him at the Mason Temple.
And in what would be the last speech of his life, King acknowledged what he said were the threats “from some of our sick white brothers” and spoke as if he had premonitions about his own death:
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
The following evening, King was shot dead while standing on a balcony outside his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel.
In his eulogy, Sharpton said that the night before Nichols’ funeral, he went with the Wells family and Tyre’s sisters and brothers to the Mason Temple where King gave his last speech. Sharpton said:
When he went to the mountaintop, I believe when he looked over he could see a Barack Obama become president, I believe when he went to the mountaintop he could look over and see a Kamala Harris sitting as vice president. I believe when he looked over from the mountaintop he saw Black police chiefs. He didn’t expect you to disgrace him, he expected you to bring us on to the promised land.
That's why I'm still marching.
And Sharpton made an impassioned call for passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, as did Vice President Kama Harris, which would hold police accountable for their actions by, among other things, limiting qualified immunity as a defense in civil lawsuits. The bill passed the Democratic-controlled House in March 2021, but died in the Senate.
RELATED STORY: VP Harris: 'We demand that Congress pass the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act'
Sharpton noted that the police officers who killed Nichols acted as if they felt “there is no accountability.” He said people are going to fight to make this legislation happen, no matter how long it takes.
Why do we want to see the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed? Because then you have to think twice before you beat Tyre Nichols. You think twice before you shoot at someone unarmed. You think twice before you chokehold Eric Garner, you think twice before you put your knee on George Floyd’s neck. … You wanna be a tough guy? Well let’s get rid of qualified immunity and see if you learn the same manners you have on the white side of town, you’ll have some manners on the Black side of town.” …
We’re not asking for nothing special. We’re asking to be treated equal and to be treated fair and just like they marched and boycotted and went to jail for nine years from the '55 Montgomery Bus Boycott to the '64 Civil Rights act, we are gonna pay the same dues to get this George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
Here is a video of Sharpton’s complete eulogy for Tyre Nichols:
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