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Civil Wrongs: Reflections on a Massacre, Part 2

Original artwork by Ephraim Urevbu, Urevbu Contemporary

"Civil Wrongs: Reflections on a Massacre" is a collaboration between WKNO-FM 91.1 and the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. For a deeper dive into this history, a 4-part podcastwas written by the students in this story about the Memphis Massacre and its connection to some current events.


CHRISTOPHER BLANK: The death of Tyre Nichols earlier this year once again raised questions about policing in this country. Despite reforms and new laws these incidents keep happening.

Today, WKNO and the Institute for Public Service Reporting bring you Part Two of our latest Civil Wrongs series, exploring historic injustices that still reverberate.

We pick up this story in a classroom at the University of Memphis, where one student is trying to make sense of our education system.

DANIEL THOMA: Hey, Daniel Thoma here!

BLANK: He's a foreign exchange student enrolled in a journalism course.

THOMA: What initially draw me to take this class was, first of all, the title of the class: social justice writing writing.

BLANK: Writing, he learned, about one subject: the Memphis Massacre, a mob attack so shocking it drove a Constitutional amendment Daniel didn't understand why his classmates — people from here — did not know about it.

DANIEL: It's something that really rubs me off the wrong way, if something like horrible like that happens and people don't talk about it.

BLANK: Back home in Germany, Daniel says students begin those painful history lessons at an early age.

DANIEL: There is a culture of remembering and it's actually also put in law. Like denying that the Holocaust happened, for example, is a crime in Germany.

BLANK: That mob attack in 1866 had been led by police officers. Daniel learned this fact in January, just days before Memphis Police made a new mark on history.

[Audio from the police beating of Tyre Nichols]

The videos of Tyre Nichols' beating made Daniel Thoma wonder if America's whole cultural identity isn't lacking some important context.

DANIEL: I think what people need to learn is that it's not only the good parts that are part of that identity. Look at the bad parts, look at why they happened. Look at maybe the the structures that were in place. This is what you need to do, first of all in order to prevent those things from happening again. And also, it's what you need to do to have a complete picture of your own country's character and your own country's identity.

BLANK: The Memphis Massacre may not be taught in local schools, but the causes of it and some of the outcomes persist in our city.

It's why journalist Laura Faith Kebede brought this civil wrongs project to a university classroom.

KEBEDE: We were trying to make some modern connections. Like were there any living descendants of the victims or untold stories?

BLANK: What the class ultimately uncovered were patterns; historic injustices repeating themselves in real time.

KEBEDE: Whenever we talk about race and policing, many have focused on the race of the police officers, as if to make it about problematic individuals.

The police who led the Memphis Massacre were all Irish and they were considered an inferior race by white Southerners, which is kind of why local papers at the time kind of dismiss it as a "race riot." Irish people versus Black people.

So when Tyre Nichols was killed by Black police officers the conversation was forced to shift. What we end up seeing is the real historical pattern.

It's about the race of the victims and an abusive culture of policing in America.

That pattern has not changed.

REV. AL SHARPTON: We're not asking for nothing special. We're asking to be treated equal and to be treated fair.

BLANK: The Rev. Al Sharpton's eulogy for Tyre Nichols zeroed in on that pattern.

REV. SHARPTON: I can't speak for everybody in Memphis. I can't speak for everybody gathering. But for me, I believe that that man had been white, you wouldn't have beat him like that that night.

BLANK: Laura Kebede's students began making a list of parallels between past and present. It was frustrating, says Cal Tuttle, to learn that so many new rules or remedies have not worked.

TUTTLE: I just don't really understand how you can go through all this training and then you're gonna like sit there and look at me and tell me that like there was a threat?

BLANK: At age 17, Tuttle joined the U.S. Marine Corps. By 19, he was leading soldiers into dangerous situations.

TUTTLE: But I also knew that I wasn't supposed to be out there taking justice into my own hands.

BLANK: Tuttle took his concerns to a symposium on police accountability at the National Civil Rights Museum. It was Tyre Nichols' mother RowVaughn Wells who best reflected his own confusion.

ROWVAUGHN WELLS: I'm not understanding why this keeps happening.

BLANK: Since 2020, the Memphis Police Department, which is majority Black, has ended no-knock warrants, improved use-of-force reporting and now requires more cultural bias training for officers. As Wells noted, the technology used to catch criminals is also catching police misconduct.

WELLS: If that sky camera was not there, we wouldn't have known anything.

BLANK: Cal Tuttle likens the efforts to fix these problems through training and policy to the classes he was required to take in the military on the dangers of tobacco.

TUTTLE: I would take that class every year. And then I would immediately follow up that class by going outside and smoking a cigarette. Because that's just... that was the culture.

BLANK: The Memphis Massacre of 1866 and the more recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tyre Nichols have another common thread. They all show the need for greater legal protections, and they all show how ineffective laws can be without cultural change.

Rhodes College history professor Tim Huebner says the summer after the Massacre Congress realized ending slavery was not enough. Black people needed strong Federal protections, even from government itself.

HUEBNER: As they said, quote, and this was I think Thaddeus Stevens who said 'the screams and the groans from Memphis' absolutely made it necessary for Congress to pass the 14th Amendment, and then of course for that eventually to be ratified by the states.

BLANK: The 14th Amendment gave newly emancipated people full citizenship and equal protection. It's still a cornerstone of American law — the basis of school desegregation, marriage equality and affirmative action.

Where else does it still come up? Police brutality cases

SHEILA JACKSON LEE: The whole issue is a climate. We are frozen in time.

BLANK: That's Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee at a recent panel discussion in Memphis. Also frozen in time: her 2021 police accountability bill, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. It stalled in the Senate, even as the need for new measures keep getting added. After Memphis paramedics delayed medical care to Tyre Nichols, she tacked on a Duty to Intervene Act.

But even some voices of reform in law enforcement say the measures themselves are not enough.

CHERYL DORSEY: Police chiefs, if they really wanted to, they could fix all of this yesterday.

BLANK: Retired police Sergeant Cheryl Dorsey with the LAPD says police already have duties to intervene and keep data on problematic officers like the Scorpion unit that attacked Tyre Nichols.

DORSEY: If you don't do anything to deter the bad behavior, then the bad behavior continues.

So where does accountability start? And who leads the change on culture?

Tomorrow, on Part 3 of our Civil Wrongs series, we hear from victims — testimonials across two centuries that are still reframing the cultural conversation around race, policing and justice.