MEMPHIS — On April 3, 1968, shortly before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver what turned out to be his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” at a Memphis church packed with striking sanitation workers, the Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr., a local minister and national strategist of nonviolent direct action, stepped up to the church’s pulpit. A colleague and friend of Dr. King, Mr. Lawson spoke passionately to the crowd about a teenager named Larry Payne. A few days before, a Memphis police officer had shot and killed Mr. Payne in a doorway outside the housing project where he lived, unbeknown to his mother, who was at home in their apartment less than a hundred yards away.
This month, Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Memphis father, became the latest Black man to join a horrific line of abuse that connects that moment 55 years ago to right now. Five Memphis police officers have been charged with the aggravated kidnapping and second-degree murder of Mr. Nichols, an avid skateboarder and photographer who worked the second shift at FedEx. The officers beat him mercilessly. He was heard on videos from the scene saying, “I’m just trying to get home.” And he called out for his mother (as George Floyd did in 2020), unbeknown to her at the time, even though she was at their house less than a hundred yards away.
Mr. Lawson told the crowd that night in 1968 how people defending the police killing were saying, “They were only doing their job.” But, Mr. Lawson countered, “if their job requires that they stick a shotgun in the midsection of a 17-year-old boy who has his hands over his head and is saying, ‘Don’t shoot,’ then we need —” Mr. Lawson couldn’t finish his sentence, because those words (which would echo decades later as demonstrators chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” in Ferguson, Mo.) stirred people in attendance to thunderous hollers, shouts and clapping. A few beats later, he raised his voice, declaring it was “high time that we rid Memphis and this nation” of police brutality. “We want to see it end,” he said, “once and for all.”
The next day, Dr. King was assassinated. And in 2023 “once and for all” still has not come true.
Many cities in the United States could trace similar repetitive patterns of policing that torments and kills people who aren’t considered white, all the way back to the origin of law enforcement in this country. It is a history rooted in slave patrols and militias designed to protect white people’s lives and livelihoods from rebellion among enslaved Black people. But in Memphis the grief and oppressiveness resulting from those systemic patterns run especially deep — lingering and reverberating, like the rap, soul, blues and rock ’n’ roll music this city has given the world.