Reflections and Lessons from Memphis | Facing History & Ourselves
People attend a candlelight vigil in memory of Tyre Nichols at the Tobey Skate Park on January 26, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee.
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Reflections and Lessons from Memphis

Facing History’s Chief Officer of Equity & Inclusion, Dr. Steven Becton shares a powerful statement in the wake of Tyre Nichols’ killing at the hands of police.

As a native Memphian and a 20 year member of the Facing History community, I have been reflecting on lessons we should take from the recent events in my community, and what imperative it provides both for our work and our society. 

By now, I am sure you are aware of the horrific killing of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Memphis father and a beloved member of the community.  As a result, five Memphis police officers have been charged with the aggravated kidnapping and second-degree murder of Tyre, known as a skateboarder who loved photography. Many of you have seen the videos, and even those who chose not to watch are aware of the horror and extent of the unjustified violence perpetrated upon the defenseless body of Tyre Nichols.

In Facing History & Ourselves classrooms educators ask students: 1) To create brave spaces where critical self reflection and difficult dialogue can happen; 2) to bring rigorous historical context because we know that any honest confrontation with police brutality must consider its long and troubling history; 3) to ask critical questions, grounded in moral reasoning and a quest for equity, justice, and change; 4) to imagine a better way forward, because to lose hope is paramount to giving into bigotry and hatred; and 5) to consider their own responsibility, agency, and actions for creating a more just and humane society.

If we are to confront and eventually end the senseless murders at the hands of police, this type of  nuanced conversation and courageous confrontation with history and ourselves is critical for students and adults alike.  What would it mean if once and for all we faced the paradox on which U.S. society was founded: a declaration of freedom from all forms of tyranny and a declaration that an entire people are not just unfit to enjoy such freedoms, but also relegated to perpetual and permanent enslavement solely on the basis of skin color. When Thomas Jefferson (in Notes on the State of Virginia) said “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” he was articulating the foundations of a narrative of white supremacy. This narrative would not only shape Colonial America but all of our most cherished institutions from their foundations, including law enforcement.

The question before our entire nation is: Will we face the hard truth that modern day policing is rooted in slave patrols and militias designed to protect white people’s lives and livelihoods from rebellion among enslaved Black people? There remains a widespread belief that Black people are first deemed suspicious, dangerous, feared, and criminal merely by identity. How do we safely both police and protect a people shaped by such a pessimistic and dangerous narrative? As a nation we must face that.

People rightfully protest and demand justice and policy reform.  But what about police culture?  Their unspoken rules?  An organization’s culture is shaped by its values, its behaviors, and what is allowed or not allowed by its members. There are countless police officers of all races who daily serve and protect without committing or even contemplating brutality.  Unfortunately, they alone do not shape or reflect the culture of the organization.  It’s a culture whose unspoken rules say that it's “us against them” and the “them” is too often and for too long the Black community in general and young Black men in particular.  This might shed some light on why several  Black officers can assault a young Black man.  The culture of othering and brutality transcends officers’ skin color –– it’s historical and institutional.  As we demand changes in policies, let’s not neglect the cultural change needed in a system rooted in the policing of Black people by brutal slave patrollers. We must ask ourselves if the culture of policing has evolved much beyond its origins.

Now that I’ve shared some historical context and raised some critical questions, I invite you to imagine a better way forward and to choose to participate. But what should you do? Do the work where you have influence.  As our nation begins to recognize Black History Month, we must commit ourselves to rejecting the narrative of Black inferiority and white supremacy year round.   Raise your critical consciousness and combat and confront anti-blackness everywhere it shows up, even in your own mind.  

Here at Facing History & Ourselves we partner with educators to inspire the next generation to work towards a more perfect union and to end all forms of  bigotry and hatred.  We can’t do it alone. We are wrapped in a common cloth of destiny. Let’s approach this as one big Facing History & Ourselves learning community. There is no better place than a learning community for practicing civility and recognizing the dignity of every human being.

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