The white mobs were led by a specific subset of people: Police officers who were mostly Irish immigrants. At the time, Irish immigrants were viewed as inferior to other white Americans. And with the emancipation of slaves just a year prior and the influx of Black people looking for jobs, Irishmen felt that their tenuous social status was threatened.
The environment for violence had been brewing for some time. As violence broke out, police shot at a group of Black veterans, believing themselves to be under fire. Today, the Memphis Police Department’s official history contains just a few words mentioning the massacre, or “riot” as it’s called.
The massacre was the first widely reported act of state violence after the Civil War. Legislators warned more would follow if Black people weren’t protected. Indeed, the massacre turned out to be a blip on the radar of America’s long history of police violence over the course of decades. About 100 years later in Memphis – just a week before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in the city — police shot a Black teen named Larry Payne, who witnesses said had his hands up. Or even more recently, there was Tyre Nichols, a Black man whose fatal beating made international headlines for its cruelty.
To understand the modern implications of police brutality, we take you to a symposium at the National Civil Rights Museum where national leaders and Nichols’ family convened to talk about solutions. We also take you to a Memphis City Council meeting, where activists pushed to pass reforms they hoped would reduce violent encounters between police officers and the community. Nichols’ family is continuing with its lawsuit against the Memphis Police Department. A criminal case against the officers is ongoing, too.
Cover art credit: Ephraim Urevbu
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