Thousands of mourners on Wednesday attended the funeral of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who died three days after Memphis police officers beat him following a traffic stop last month.
Nichols’ beating shocked many in the US after being captured on camera, and triggered yet another bout of soul-searching over racism and police brutality. The five officers involved have been charged with murder and other crimes.
The Rev Al Sharpton, who delivered the eulogy at Nichols’ service, shared his anger that at least five Black officers were involved in the brutal beating of Nichols - so close to the location of where Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated.
“In the city that Dr King lost his life, not far away from that balcony, you beat a brother to death,” said Sharpton.
“All he wanted to do was get home,” said Sharpton of Nichols.
That was a heartbreaking theme echoed by Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, and other family members, whose moving tributes to their lost relative were also edged by passionate demands for action and the passage of a stalled federal law aimed at reforming the police.
“We need to take some action because there should be no other child that should suffer the way my son – and all the other parents here that lost their children – we need to get that bill passed because if we don’t, the next child that dies, their blood is going to be on their hands,” Wells said.
Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney Wells, similarly called for justice: “What’s done in the dark will always come to the light, and the light of day is justice for Tyre, justice for all the families that have lost loved ones to brutality of police or anybody.”
Vice-President Kamala Harris gave brief remarks at the service, addressing law enforcement’s duty to maintain public safety.
“This violent act was not in pursuit of public safety … Was [Tyre Nichols] not also entitled to the right to be safe?” said Harris.
“Tyre Nichols should have been safe.”
The Rev Dr J Lawrence Turner, pastor of the Mississippi Boulevard Christian church, opened with remarks on Nichols’ character.
“[Nichols was] a good person, a beautiful soul, a son, a father, a brother, a friend, a human being, gone too soon,” said Turner to the estimated 2,500 people in attendance.
“This family has endured the unsolicited, unwarranted, unreasonable, unjustifiable and massive burden of grieving their loved one and at the same time, fighting for justice,” added Turner.
Early on Wednesday, city officials treated the roads near the church as inclement winter weather pushed back the planned service, with swaths of the southern US experiencing dangerous road conditions.
But thousands still attended what has been described as a chance to celebrate and remember Nichols’ life, rather than focus on the gruesome way he died.
On Wednesday, some gathered outside the church with signs reading “Justice for Tyre Nichols”, additional calls for action after the release less than a week ago of police camera footage of the beating.
Attendees came from across the country.
Dan Beazley traveled from Detroit with a 10ft tall cross to pay his respects.
“When I saw the video footage on Friday, I had dreams all weekend about the cross here,” Beazley told Memphis Commercial Appeal.
A white hearse waited nearby, as church staff salted and sanded nearby sidewalks.
The service began with a procession led by Sharpton and Nichols’ family. At the start of the funeral, choir members sang the 2013 gospel song You Are My Strength.
After Sharpton’s eulogy, the attorney Ben Crump, who is representing the Nichols family, gave a speech calling for action.
Before the service on Wednesday, Sharpton visited Memphis’s Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated.
“As we kick off Black History Month and I prepare to eulogize Tyre Nichols later today, I wanted to come by the Lorraine Hotel where Dr King was viciously killed to reflect. There must be greater value of Black lives in this country,” wrote Sharpton on Instagram.
The funeral was also attended by family members of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, victims of high-profile police killings in 2020 in Louisville and Minneapolis.
Five officers were charged last week with second-degree murder and dismissed from their jobs over their alleged involvement in Nichols’s death. The department confirmed on Monday that two other officers had been relieved of duty, including Preston Hemphill, who is white. He has not been criminally charged. The seventh officer has not been identified.
After footage of the deadly encounter was made public last Friday, calls have grown for police officials and prosecutors to be more transparent about the circumstances of the incident, given initial police reports did not match what was seen on the footage.
The Shelby county district attorney, Steve Mulroy, said on Tuesday that prosecutors could bring further criminal charges against officers and others in connection with Nichols’ death, after mounting criticism over how Mulroy’s office and Memphis police have handled the case.
Crump said on Tuesday police had not been candid with Nichols’s mother about an incident he called a “police lynching”.
“She thought it was a conspiracy to cover it up from the beginning,” Crump told CNN.
The family had gathered on Tuesday evening with Sharpton at the Mason Temple Church of God in Christ in Memphis – where King spoke the night before he was assassinated in 1968 – to speak about Nichols and the case.
Sharpton said he wanted the family to stand where King stood.
“They’re standing on that ground because we will continue in Tyre’s name to head up to Martin’s mountaintop,” he said. “That’s why we wanted to start this right on this sacred ground. This is holy ground. And this family now is ours and they’re in the hands of history.”
Many in Memphis had taken steps to memorialize Nichols, while calling for justice against the Memphis police officers who beat him.
A makeshift memorial of stuffed animals and flowers marks the site where Nichols was punched, kicked and tased by officers.
“When I heard him yelling for his mom, it broke me down,” Nita Smith, a Memphis resident who visited the memorial, told Fox 17.
Deloris Burrow, another Memphis resident, added: “It was just hurtful. Just knowing what happened even before seeing the video had me in tears.”