The summer after the world witnessed the brutal beating of Rodney King, I and a group of friends made our way to a nightclub in the southern part of Dade County, Florida. We had recently returned to America after having spent months in Saudi Arabia, not knowing if we would ever see our families again or if we would be confronted with some lingering illness resulting from our service to our country. We returned as combat veterans and this nation welcomed us back as “heroes.”
Well, the “heroes” needed a night out, so off we went to the club for a good time. I distinctly remember someone saying that Black Entertainment Television was supposed to be at this particular club that night, but as soon as we pulled up, we realized that the chances of that were nil because the cable network that broadcast Rap City didn’t usually post up in such a small venue.
The night got off to a normal start. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly and left around 3 a.m. with the intent of going to the 7-Eleven for some gas station nachos before heading back to base
About three blocks away from the club we saw blue lights…everywhere. There were so many flashing blue lights, I thought that maybe a spaceship had landed in South Florida or the rapture had occurred. Once the car stopped, the source of the flashing lights became clear when we heard a voice that seemed to come out of the heavens say, “Get out of the car with your hands up! If you make any moves, we are going to blow your f—ing heads off!” As I got out of the car, I noticed that the policemen — six of them — had their guns drawn. All of them. I don’t recall being afraid, but I distinctly remember noticing how the blue lights seemed to dance from one pistol to the next and thinking that it was the potential yellow flashes I had to be worried about.
We protested that we hadn’t done anything, that we were military, and asked “why did you stop us?” It turns out that we fit the description of someone they were looking for, although it was never clear to me what that person looked like. After searching the car and finding some half-drained 3-hour-old old “forties,” one officer produced my friend’s .25 automatic from the glove box. They reacted as though they found a .50 caliber machine gun and slapped handcuffs on him and took him to jail. Shortly afterwards, the policemen told us to go home after finding out we didn’t have any outstanding warrants.
Upon our friend’s release, we went to pick him up and talked about what had happened. I remember leaving that conversation realizing that as Black men, we are born “suspect” from the moment our mothers bring us into the world until we leave it. Days prior to this event, we were hailed as heroes, but on that night, neither our military service as demonstrated by our military ID nor our fervent claims of being innocent meant anything. Our skin was our sin; our crime. If we had acted upon the frustration or justifiable anger and indignation we felt that night, our bullet-riddled corpses — along with some story of a supposedly nefarious activity we were engaged in — would have likely been shipped back to our grieving mothers in Tallahassee, Chicago, Pascagoula, and Philadelphia for burial.
As I watched video of the beating that led to the death of Tyre Nichols, I reflected on how this act on this night in Memphis was connected to our incident in Dade County and the more lethal interactions between police and Black Americans that led to the deaths and public executions of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Philando Castille, and others across this country. Indeed, the behavior exhibited by the policemen that night in 1991 was consistent with an idea that is as old as the founding of America, one that is embedded in many of its institutions and manifests itself today regardless of who works in them — that being that African Americans are inferior and their lives have less value than that of other Americans.
The record on this is clear. One only has to peruse the laws passed in antebellum America regarding enslaved and Free Blacks, look at the power granted slave patrols, and read about how a feature of life by many in the US was to minimize or ignore the cries, pain, and trauma resulting from the enslavement of African Americans to see it. The use of terror — from the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan here in Tennessee months after the Civil War’s end to Jim Crow to the creation of a “Scorpion” unit to control a segment of Memphis’ Black population — also confirms it. Violence and the threat of violence to Black bodies, groups and communities has been and continues to be a feature of the African American experience in the United States. The perpetrators of the violence have changed, but the institutions that have given them the authority to act, protected them, and enthusiastically blessed their actions have not.
As we enter the second month of 2023, we must come to grips with the fact that we are still confronted with anti-Black racism in almost every aspect of American society, and the results of it can be deadly for people who look like Nichols and their communities. For me, as a scholar of American history, a descendant of people who were brought here in chains, and an honorably discharged war veteran, it is extremely frustrating to see that our consistent response has been to overwhelmingly support the perpetrators while muting or turning a blind eye to the examples of pain and grief that bombard our senses with each incident. Worse, we treat these events as though they occur in isolation and often reach the erroneous conclusion that increasing funding for these institutions, giving them access to weapons designed to wage war, and limiting their oversight is the way to move forward.
While I did not know Tyre Nichols personally, I intuitively knew the fear he felt when he first realized that he had been pulled over by police and how that fear did not abate because the officers had black faces. The pain his mother felt and the rage the Black citizens of Memphis experienced at the senseless violence and loss of Black life was recognizable to me as I remembered having read African American accounts of the city’s role as Tennessee’s largest slave port during the antebellum period, of the Memphis Massacre of 1866, and its responses to the brutal lynchings of three of its citizens that led to Ida B. Well’s anti-lynching crusade. The type of grief Nichols’ mother felt upon hearing the news of her son’s murder has been shared Black women in Memphis for more than two centuries.
Finally, I thought about how the phrase “I AM A Man” became a call sign that affirmed the humanity of Memphis’s Black sanitation workers in 1968, and how it as a simple but eloquent statement has largely been ignored in our history and continues to be the case when it comes to African Americans.
Nichols’s senseless death at the hands of the police presents America with another opportunity to do better by its African American citizens. He should have been given as much grace during this traffic stop as a white woman would have gotten had she been pulled over in the affluent suburb of Collierville. The America in which something like that would occur is my fervent hope and something that I work toward, but as I get older it feels more like a whimsical fantasy.
Learotha Williams, Jr., is a scholar of African American, Civil War and Reconstruction, and Public History at Tennessee State University. This essay was first published by the Tennessee Lookout.