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Tyre Nichols was remembered at his funeral in Memphis

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In Memphis today, mourners gathered in heartache for the funeral of Tyre Nichols.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J LAWRENCE TURNER: A good person, a beautiful soul, a son, a father, a brother, a friend, a human being, gone too soon, denied the dignity of his humanity, denied the right to see the sun set another day...

SUMMERS: That was Reverend Dr. J. Lawrence Turner, senior pastor of the church that hosted Nichols' funeral. He died last month after he was brutally beaten by Memphis police officers.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

That beating, captured on body cam and surveillance video, infuriated the nation when officials made it public late last week. The five officers involved were fired and charged with murder, and others are under investigation.

SUMMERS: Today, the calls for justice and accountability were amplified by nearly everyone who spoke, including Vice President Kamala Harris, who was seated next to Nichols' mother.

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KAMALA HARRIS: Mothers around the world, when their babies are born, pray to God, when they hold their child, that that body and that life will be safe for the rest of his life. Yet we have a mother and a father who mourn the life of a young man who should be here today.

SHAPIRO: Tyre Nichols' mother, RowVaughn Wells, remembered her son through tears.

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ROWVAUGHN WELLS: I promise you the only thing that's keeping me going is the fact that I really, truly believe my son was sent here on an assignment...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yes, ma'am.

WELLS: ...From God.

(APPLAUSE)

SUMMERS: NPR's Adrian Florido was at the funeral today, and he joins us now from Memphis. Adrian, tell us more about today's services.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Well, the funeral was held at the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in midtown Memphis. Hundreds of people came out, in spite of freezing rain and icy roads. And Nichols' closed casket, topped with white flowers, was front and center. And his parents sat in the front row, next to the vice president and other leaders and also near the families of other Black Americans who have been killed by police. George Floyd's family attended the funeral today. So did Eric Garner's and Breonna Taylor's. And the eulogy was delivered by the Reverend Al Sharpton.

SUMMERS: Tell us about that eulogy. What did he say?

FLORIDO: Well, the Reverend Sharpton spoke of Tyre Nichols as the next in a long line of Black victims of police brutality who, in death, have become symbols of African Americans' unending fight for fair treatment.

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AL SHARPTON: And even as I stand over the casket of this innocent young boy, I believe that God will take him - Tyre - out of that pit and use him as a symbol for justice all over this country.

(APPLAUSE)

SHARPTON: I believe that babies unborn will know about Tyre Nichols because we won't let his memory die.

FLORIDO: Sharpton also spoke, Juana, about the fact that all five of the officers charged with murdering Nichols were themselves Black. He said that it was a travesty that it happened in a city that had been so important in the civil rights movement and where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, and he addressed those officers directly.

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SHARPTON: You beat a brother to death. There's nothing more insulting and offensive to those of us that fight to open doors that you walk through those doors and act like the folks we had to fight for to get you through them doors.

(APPLAUSE)

FLORIDO: Reverend Sharpton said that he thought that if Tyre Nichols had been white, those officers would not have beat him the way they did.

SUMMERS: Adrian, this funeral has obviously become a symbol for this nation's ongoing reckoning with issues of race and police brutality, but it also is a funeral for a man who was a son, a father, a brother. What else did we learn about Tyre Nichols today?

FLORIDO: Well, we learned that, as a child, his favorite thing to do was watch cartoons with a big bowl of cereal. And his family spoke a lot about what a peaceful man he was. Here's his sister, Keyana Dixon.

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KEYANA DIXON: Even in his demise, he was still polite. He asked them to please stop.

FLORIDO: His brother, James Lazair (ph), told the story of how Tyre got his first name. He said their mother was going to name him Tyre, but that she ended up not doing that.

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JAMES LAZAIR: But she always kept that name in her back pocket for some reason. I don't know. Then '93 came, and our boy came, and she was like, there you are...

(LAUGHTER)

LAZAIR: ...Tyre. And I used to always joke with him like, man, you keep messing with me, I'm going to my name back. And he was like, no, you ain't. That's my name.

FLORIDO: His mother - Nichols' mother - RowVaughn Wells, was the last member of this family to speak. And she pleaded with elected leaders to pass police reform because she said, if they don't, her son will not be the last victim of police brutality.

SUMMERS: Hmm. And that mother's plea was one of a number of calls to action today. Adrian, tell us what else you heard.

FLORIDO: Well, the demand that we heard over and over from the family, from the Reverend Sharpton, from the vice president, was for Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would really beef up tools to hold police accountable for brutality. Ben Crump, the Nichols family lawyer, said that he and others will keep fighting for that and also to push, in future cases, of police brutality for arrests to happen as quickly as the ones in this case.

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BEN CRUMP: No more can they ever tell us, when we have evidence on video of them brutalizing us, that it's going to take six years, that's it's going to take a month. No, no, no - 20 days. We going to start counting. We can count to 20.

FLORIDO: Crump and the Nichols family also thanked Memphis activists. Because Crump said that, without them, the world may never have found out what happened to Tyre Nichols.

SUMMERS: NPR's Adrian Florido in Memphis. Thank you.

FLORIDO: Thank you, Juana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.