The murder of Tyre Nichols
February 2, 2023
At the funeral of her son, Tyre Nichols, RowVaughn Wells
was a portrait of dignity and restraint, as she has been over the
last several weeks. As she spoke, tears rolled down her cheeks
and her voice broke, but she managed to convey purpose,
insisting that Congress pass a federal police reform bill.
“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 have lost their children — we need to get that bill
passed,” she said. “Because if we don’t, that blood — the next
child that dies, that blood is going to be on their hands.”
My mother has noticed the grace with which Wells has worn her
unspeakable grief in countless television appearances following
the death of her son on January 10, three days after he was
brutally beaten by Memphis police officers. “She is always so
dignified,” my mother commented. “I’m not sure that I could do
that if it had happened to my child.”
I’m not sure I could either. I’m not sure I’d want to. Why is it that
black women are so often put in positions where we must
shoulder unbearable public sorrow?
Wells is one of a long procession of black women who have lost
loved ones to the violence bred by racism and the
dehumanization of black Americans — a dehumanization that was
inculcated in several black police officers in Memphis. She has
said that she could not watch the lengthy videos of officers
beating her son — punching, kicking, bludgeoning — after Nichols
called for her in his misery: “Mo—o-om!” he screams, again and
again. Still, she bore all this with a striking public decorum.
My mother remembers that the late Coretta Scott King also wore
her grief with an unfailing grace and dignity after her husband, the
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was struck down by an assassin’s
bullet in Memphis in 1968. Coretta King was a heroine for many
black women of my mother’s generation who understood that the
widow’s every move, every remark, every gesture would be
parsed, photographed, dissected. For far too many whites, any
black woman in the public sphere represents all black women.
That is little changed.
King turned her stature and image to public purpose, creating
Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social
Change and campaigning for decades for a federal holiday to
commemorate her late husband. President Ronald Reagan, who
initially opposed the holiday, finally signed it into law in 1983.
Decades earlier, Emmet Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, showed
a similar courage and public poise after her son was savagely
beaten by white racists in Mississippi in 1955 for the alleged
social infraction of whistling at a white woman. Till-Mobley insisted
that her son’s casket remain open. “I want the world to see what
they did to my baby,” she said. Though the perpetrators were
quickly caught, they were just as quickly exonerated by an all-
Hollywood has made a well-reviewed movie, “Till,” about her
activism following the death of her only child. Dignified and well-
spoken, Till-Mobley was hired by the NAACP to go on a speaking
tour, which became one of the organization’s most successful
fund-raising drives. The monument at her grave reads, “Her pain
united a nation.” It also helped to fuel the success of the civil
rights movement as she gave voice to countless black citizens
who had suffered loss through racist violence.
Here in the 21 st century, black Americans still suffer such loss.
And the family members who struggle with their grief are still
watched for signs of bitterness or anger or hatred or any other
less magnanimous, though completely understandable, human
emotion. They are expected to show a nobility at odds with the
way in which they are viewed by the larger society.
While I am in awe of Vaughn’s courage and grace, I don’t wish
that for any other black mothers. What I wish for is an end to the
procession of black grief.