I did not want to watch.
As a people, we have witnessed the horrors of police violence again and again—so much so, that some of us are now immune, desensitized against the trauma. Others of us look away because, frankly, we are not. In the end, I could not turn away.
My own son, Joshua, is but a couple of years older and—but for time and a slight crossing of the stars—it could have been him on that pavement. Several years ago, my middle child was handcuffed in Atlanta with a weapon pressed against his back, after officers falsely accused him of stealing his own MacBook. He is alive today. But, I know things could’ve turned out much differently.
There can be no debate about the brutality that led to 29-year-old Tyre Nichols’ death. The video footage proves it: He was dragged from his car, assaulted, chased down, and brutally beaten by a gang of Memphis police officers. Like Josh, Nichols was a few blocks from home. In the aftermath, as Nichols lay incoherent, bleeding, and slumped against a police cruiser, the officers—now facing a slew of charges including second-degree murder, aggravated assault, and aggravated kidnapping—compared notes, got their stories straight, and complained about their shoes. None of them stopped to help him. No one rendered aid. They were thinking about themselves—their families, their careers, their tomorrows.
Ironically, just a short drive away, a man was shot dead on a motel balcony nearly 55 years ago. None of the officers involved in Nichols’ murder are old enough to know him, but, in so many ways, he knew them. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., joined by Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Ralph David Abernathy, and others, was in Memphis on April 4, 1968, to support a sanitation strike. But, more than that, Dr. King was there because he was thinking about Nichols—and the five police officers who killed him.
It is a history, a context well worth knowing.
What happened before that day, what unfolded in this country in the centuries before he stepped foot onto that second-floor walkway, outside of room 306, is as important as the collection of every hour since. That is not only Black history; it is our nation’s history. The evolution of civil and human rights in this country—and the plight of marginalized communities—is central to who we are. But, who we are to become is inextricably tied to who we have been, and, as evidenced by the heinous beating death of Nichols, who we persist to be. To understand why five Black police officers would bludgeon and stomp an unarmed man, whose alleged traffic infraction couldn’t even be substantiated, until he was clinging to threads of life, one must first understand what brought them to that corner.
No matter how desensitized we become to its horrors, no matter how hard we struggle to look away, it is a history that defines and still confines us today. But some people, too many people, don’t believe that.
Conservatives like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis believe diverse perspectives, specifically those that offer experiences that run counter to the America he envisions, have no place in the classroom. To hear DeSantis, a likely 2024 GOP candidate for president, tell it, course work that acknowledges our nation’s troubled civil and human rights history should be criminalized—and he’s starting with teachers. Failure to appropriately police classroom libraries could result in a felony charge.
According to right-wing advocacy groups, teachers and librarians are using books to “groom” students. They fear that America’s schoolchildren are being indoctrinated with so-called leftist ideologies. For them, that means losing a centuries-long strangle-hold on what generations of children are taught to believe about our nation’s birth and what truly makes us exceptional. Conveniently, they’d rather us write off Nichols’s murder as an aberration perpetrated by a few bad apples, rather than examine the full of the barrel, the race-based policing policies that fueled that night. They rather cherry pick passages from some of Dr. King’s most famous speeches, fitting a narrative that conveniently shaves off the ugliness of our past, than to allow works by James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, or Michelle Alexander anywhere near an American classroom.
I am reminded now of my own time in the classroom, and how teachers helped us put the world in context with diverse perspectives. Thanks, in part, to an 8th grade English teacher, Peggy Lewis-LeCompte, I had an expansive early education that included Twain, Homer, Whitman, Baldwin, and Giovanni. Looking back now, it is clear that she and other teachers of mine were trying to give me a fuller look at history and, in doing so, a closer look at myself. There were moments when she was the only thing standing between me and the streets. Today, someone like Mrs. LeCompte would be running the risk of handcuffs and a holding cell for handing me the “wrong” book. It would’ve ended her career.
This is a problem that extends past Florida. Notably, in March, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee passed his own book ban in the Tennessee State Legislature. Targeted books include those about the Holocaust, or that contain LGBTQ+ characters or themes. In Florida, DeSantis’ administration specifically struck down funding for AP African American history, saying such a class had no educational value.
DeSantis and Lee would be among the first to tell you that government overreach is something to be abhorred. That is, unless it’s a band of right-wing extremists doing the reaching. Across the country, their acolytes are winning school board seats, declaring a war on “woke,” then promptly firing superintendents and anyone else standing in the way of their march to re-colonize America’s school rooms. As prosecutions from the Jan. 6 insurrection shows, they are in the ranks of our nation’s law enforcement officers. And, yes, some of the people supporting those ideologies are Black.
I am under no delusion that a book would have stopped those officers from killing Nichols. Knowing one’s history did not stop a gang of undercover cops—some Black, some white—from accosting my son. What I do know is this: We can either choose to educate a new generation of children who will perpetuate the systems and beliefs that increase the likelihood of another Black man dying as he cries out for his mother. Or, we can choose to continue working to perfect this nation and preserve this republic by honoring the diverse perspectives that built it.
What happened to Nichols is the result of a diseased culture. Hiding from our past, whitewashing the roads that brought us here, won’t change that.