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Memphis has always been Black land

The police killing of Tyre Nichols is as much a story of Memphis as it is of America

I’ve been thinking a lot about Tyre Nichols, about Memphis, about the struggle.

Memphis, Tennessee, got its name from the first capital of Egypt, which is to say, you can take Memphis out of the motherland, but you can’t take the motherland out of Memphis.

Memphis is Black land, with its civil rights history, its basketball pedigree, its Oscar winners. Tyre wasn’t from Memphis. He was from another city of kings – Sacramento, California. According to reports, the father, photographer and skateboarding enthusiast moved to Memphis just before the pandemic. I read about Nichols’ story and couldn’t help but think about soul singer Sam Cooke, born two hours away from Memphis in Clarksdale, Miss. The two Memphises share a commonality – they were both built next to strong rivers.

I was born by the river, in a little tent/Oh, and just like the river/I’ve been running, ever since,” Cooke sang in “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the record that has since become a freedom song. A change is gonna come, he believed, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have A Dream speech. That was almost 60 years ago.

There’s beauty in the struggle, we tell ourselves. This is the language of people who realize that change doesn’t nearly come fast enough, and when it does, the forces of hatred work overtime to push back. There is no struggle without progress, and then comes regress.

This is the story of Memphis as much as it’s the story of America.

Demonstrators protest the killing of Tyre Nichols by police on Jan. 28 in Memphis, Tennessee.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

LeMoyne-Owen College, a private historically Black college, was founded in 1862 as Lincoln School, which later became LeMoyne Normal and Commercial School. It’s not enough to say that the school was founded by Protestants, it was founded by a multiracial abolitionist coalition during the Civil War. Four years later, the school was burned to the ground by white violence, specifically the Memphis Race Riots of 1866. The riot began when a white police officer attempted to arrest a Black Union Army veteran, and what began as an armed conflict ended with widespread attacks on Black civilians and freed people.

The response by the police then, and now, is the natural reaction of white supremacy. Some people believed that because five Black police officers were involved in the brutal beating and death of Nichols, that we were our “own worse enemy.” In the days after the video was released, we learned that the five Black officers weren’t the only villains on the scene. With that said, the enemy has always been clear, and I’m not just talking about the natural progression of slave patrols. I’m also talking about the governments that perpetually empower the institution of policing.

If anything, we as Black people are all we have. The Reconstruction period after the Civil War reminds us of this.

Just as the country would be rebuilt, so would LeMoyne. More than a century later, in 1968, LeMoyne would merge with another HBCU, Owen College, to form the current institution.

1968. The year King went to Memphis on behalf of Black sanitation workers who were on strike after the deaths of two of their co-workers, followed by his assassination at the Lorraine Motel.

Yet King laid roots in Black land more than a decade before the sanitation strike. He visited Memphis in 1957 just after the successful bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, at the Metropolitan Baptist Church, which was right next door to the institution that eventually became LeMoyne-Owen College.

It is a reminder about the power of building and mobilizing. Of course, LeMoyne-Owen would take on the Magician mascot, because how in the world are Black people doing this? It’s gotta be magic. Or divinity. Maybe both.

From left to right: Memphis Grizzlies players Jerryd Bayless, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol talk during a time out in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the San Antonio Spurs on May 25, 2013, in Memphis, Tennessee.

Danny Johnston/AP Photo

It’s why basketball is also a Memphis staple. Jerry C. Johnson won more than 800 games as the coach at LeMoyne-Owen, and was two degrees of separation away from the founder of basketball, James Naismith.

Johnson’s efforts preceded the Grit ’n’ Grind style that would define Memphis pro basketball culture, and if “grit and grind” doesn’t describe the Black experience, it certainly describes the fertility of our soil. We are the diamonds in the rough, beautiful, shining, even if we don’t always profit from the mining.

Of course, Grizzlies from the past and present would have something to say about Nichols’ fate. The most enduring message might have been from the heart and soul of #GrizzNation, former Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph.

“To the family of Tyre Nichols I extend my deepest condolences, my thoughts and prayers are with you during this devastating time,” Randolph posted on Instagram. “To our city I pray for peace, and that we come together to fix this broken system.”

This broken system. Broken like Jacob Blake, who was shot and paralyzed by police in 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. For a moment, the shooting of Blake was the last straw for pro basketball players. Milwaukee Bucks players were catalysts for a protest without playing that burst the NBA bubble, and I often wonder what might have happened had the NBA players stood their ground and demanded actual change, not just penny-ante reforms.

I can imagine they would have become legends, in the vein of baseball great Curt Flood, sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It’s also worth mentioning that in the pursuit of justice, all of those men lost their livelihoods. Still, it is ironic that LeBron James, the same king who presumably tweeted about Black people being our own worst enemy, is the same person who consulted the first Black president to halt the protest.

Nichols deserved better. So did Blake. So did Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by Cleveland police. So many names, known and unknown.

My late brother deserved better, as well. James was the one with the communications degree, not his column-writing brother. I sat with him during a rehabilitation stint and I told him that as soon as he recovered, we had to take a trip to Memphis. “So much history there,” I told him.

It was the last time we spoke.

For as much as we talk about Black death, we should also talk about the value of Black life and how much it still matters. If Nichols had survived the attack, he would still be in peril, which retired Shelby County commissioner Tami Sawyer explained on Twitter.

“If #TyreNichols had not died, we would not know his name,” she wrote. “He’d be caught up in the court system trying to prove his innocence, paying healthcare costs for his injuries, and likely losing his job at FedEx when the charges hit his record.”

Black civilizations, from Egypt to Greenwood, the location of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was attacked in 1921, and beyond, aren’t just functions of Black excellence. They are functions of Black adequacy.

When we understand this, we will fight for the “least of us” as vigorously as we do Black celebrity. This is my dream, today.

Ken J. Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the Makin’ A Difference podcast. Before and after commentating, he’s thinking about his wife and his sons.