Another bereft mother pleads for reform
At the Feb. 1 funeral of her son, Tyre Nichols, RowVaughn Wells was a portrait of dignity and restraint, as she has been over the last several weeks. As she spoke, tears rolled down her cheeks and her voice broke, but she managed to convey purpose, insisting that Congress pass a federal police reform bill.
“We need to take some action because there should be no other child that should suffer the way my son — and all the other parents here have lost their children — we need to get that bill passed,” she said. “Because if we don’t, that blood — the next child that dies, that blood is going to be on their hands.”
My mother has noticed the grace with which Wells has worn her unspeakable grief in countless television appearances following the death of her son on Jan. 10, three days after he was brutally beaten by Memphis police officers. “She is always so dignified,” my mother commented. “I’m not sure that I could do that if it had happened to my child.”
I’m not sure I could either. I’m not sure I’d want to. Why is it that Black women are so often put in positions where we must publicly shoulder unbearable sorrow?
Wells is one of a long procession of Black women who have lost loved ones to the violence bred by racism and the dehumanization of Black Americans — a dehumanization that was inculcated in several Black police officers in Memphis. She has said that she could not watch the lengthy videos of officers beating her son — punching, kicking, bludgeoning — after Nichols called for her in his misery: “Moo-om!” he screamed, again and again. Still, she bore all this with a striking public decorum.
My mother remembers that the late Coretta Scott King also wore her grief with an unfailing grace and dignity after her husband, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was struck down by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis in 1968. Coretta King was a heroine for many Black women of my mother’s generation, who understood that the widow’s every move, every remark, every gesture would be parsed, photographed, dissected. For far too many white people, any Black woman in the public sphere represents all Black women. That is little changed.
King turned her stature and image to public purpose, creating Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change and campaigning for decades for a federal holiday to commemorate her late husband. President Ronald Reagan, who initially opposed the holiday, finally signed it into law in 1983.
Decades earlier, Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, showed a similar courage and public poise after her son was savagely beaten by white racists in Mississippi in 1955 for the alleged social infraction of whistling at a white woman. Till-Mobley insisted that her son’s casket remain open. “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she said. Though the perpetrators were quickly caught, they were just as quickly exonerated by an all-white jury.
Hollywood has made a well-reviewed movie, “Till,” about her activism following the death of her only child. Dignified and well-spoken, Till-Mobley was hired by the NAACP to go on a speaking tour, which became one of the organization’s most successful fundraising drives. The monument at her grave reads, “Her pain united a nation.” It also helped fuel the success of the civil rights movement as she gave voice to countless Black citizens who had suffered loss through racist violence.
Here in the 21st century, Black Americans still suffer such loss, and the family members who struggle with their grief are still watched for signs of bitterness or anger or hatred or any other lessmagnanimous (though completely understandable) human emotion. They are expected to show a nobility at odds with the way they are viewed by the larger society.
While I am in awe of Wells’ courage and grace, I don’t wish that for any other Black mothers. What I wish for is an end to the procession of Black grief.