In Memphis, Tyre Nichols's Killing Echoes 1866 MassacreRoundup
tags: racism, violence, African American history, Memphis, policing
Isaiah Stafford is a 2023 graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst (B.A. political science and journalism) and a student at the Temple University Beasley School of Law.
Kathy Roberts Forde is associate professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of Literary Journalism on Trial: Masson v. New Yorker and the First Amendment.
Three years after the police murder of George Floyd, the Department of Justice has released a searing report on the Minneapolis Police Department, finding widespread use of excessive force, including deadly force, and discrimination against Black and Indigenous people.
In May the DOJ announced it is investigating police “use of force” policies in yet another city, Memphis, plus a separate review of specialized units used in law enforcement across the country. Five Memphis police officers, members of a special anti-crime strike team named Scorpion, brutally attacked 29-year-old Tyre Nichols after a stop for an alleged traffic violation on Jan. 7. Nichols died three days later from head injuries suffered during the police beating, according to the autopsy report.
Just three months after Nichols’s killing at the hands of police, Memphis recorded 40 murders in March alone, double the January figure. As David A. Graham reported in The Atlantic, this surge in murder is part of a U.S. pattern following “highly publicized killings by police officers.” Experts aren’t sure why this happens and why it’s happening in Memphis this year, especially given the significant decline in national murder rates in 2023 thus far. But it’s a social fact that makes life even more precarious in this majority Black city, where, the Marshall Project reports, rates of police arrests of, and violence against, Black residents are disproportionately high.
Police violence is the leading cause of death for young Black men in the United States. It is an urgent and heartbreaking national problem, but with specific local expressions.
Memphis has been a racialized hot spot for police violence for more than 150 years, with roots reaching back to a massacre that occurred soon after the Civil War ended.
By the mid-19th century, the steamboat industry in Memphis, a city perched along the Mississippi River, was thriving, as was railroad construction, providing livelihoods for those willing to endure the dangerous work. Irish immigrants flowed into Memphis, fleeing famine and mass unemployment back home, to take these unskilled jobs and build new lives as Irish Americans. As a fairly young city, just 40 years old when the Civil War began, Memphis was largely a city of newcomers, including White and free Black Southerners.
Black people freed from slavery during and after the Civil War moved to Memphis, occupied early on by Union forces during the war, and competed for the same positions. The labor situation was toxic, pitting the formerly enslaved against Irish immigrants not considered fully White in an evolving racial hierarchy. In short order, the Irish in Memphis adopted the white supremacist ideas and racial grievances of the former Confederates and aligned with the Democratic Party, a strategic move meant to cement their whiteness and Americanness. The population of Memphis had exploded from roughly 20,000 in 1860 to 35,000 by the war’s end, with 20 percent being Irish.
Ex-Confederates, barred from voting, left a hole in the electorate that the new Irish Americans quickly filled as they became active in Memphis politics. Because many had not fought with the Confederates, they were eligible to vote and dominated the elections. (Black men had yet to receive the vote in Tennessee.) As a result, the Irish gained political power in Memphis and parlayed that power in the labor market. By 1865, the Irish held 162 of the 177 positions in the Memphis police force, with the Irish American mayor appointing many based not on their qualifications but by their political affiliation.