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A Memphis congregation mourns Tyre Nichols

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's the regular Sunday service at Centenary United Methodist Church in Memphis. But it's not a typical Sunday. Congregants have come together not just to worship and have fellowship, but also to mourn - in this case, the death of Tyre Nichols after a beating by Memphis police officers. Many are regulars, but others have come because it's a place that brings together the past and the present. Martin Luther King Jr. met with people here in April 1968 in support of the sanitation workers strike right before he was assassinated in Memphis. And many of the people we spoke with here have also been touched by police violence.

CYNTHIA DAVIS: One of my brothers is a former police officer, and the same thing happened to him by his own colleagues several years ago in Nashville.

MARTIN: That's Cynthia Davis (ph), a retired minister. She says her brother, Reggie Miller, was beaten by Nashville police shortly after the Rodney King incident in the early 1990s, even though he was an officer himself, but in civilian clothes.

CYNTHIA DAVIS: By his colleagues - was jerked out of his car and beaten up. And it was the supervisors who came over and said, hey, that's one of our guys. And they said they didn't recognize him because he had on a baseball cap backward.

MARTIN: I asked her what impact that had had on her family.

CYNTHIA DAVIS: It was a very long and turbulent and traumatic event for our entire family and for him, as well, for his family. And we couldn't figure out, why did they break all the procedures, just like they did, to jerk him out of the car and start the beating? And had there not been intervention, we don't know what would have happened to him. He was in a police-issued vehicle that had expired tags. And so they said it was because of his expired tags that they pulled him over. But he was a Black man in a car with expired tags, and the immediate response was jerking him out of the car and beating him up.

MARTIN: I also spoke with an interim church official named the Reverend David Weatherly. He knows just how violent Memphis can be.

DAVID WEATHERLY: (Singing, inaudible).

MARTIN: He was asked to step into his current position after his longtime friend, fellow pastor, the Reverend Autura Eason-Williams was killed in a carjacking last year.

WEATHERLY: She'd pulled into her own driveway at the end of the day.

MARTIN: By teenagers, as I understand it.

WEATHERLY: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: That just had to be very traumatic. I was just wondering, like, what was the - it's not a secret that Memphis had been experiencing a number of things like this. And I just kind of wonder what went through your mind and that of the - your community's mind when this happened.

WEATHERLY: For me, it was first the loss of my friend of 27 years. She had pulled into her own driveway, the end of a day of ministry. And she was on the phone with a dear friend, fellow pastor, who heard the end of her life play out over the phone and knew something dreadful was happening or had happened. But the feeling mainly was the absolute loss - the senseless, needless loss of a person who was having such a tremendous impact for the goodwill of people and throughout the metro area of Memphis.

MARTIN: So it just seems like tragedy upon tragedy, you know? I mean, you're still, I mean, dealing with - not just you, but you and others who have experienced this kind of thing - you're dealing with that. And then this whole situation emerges with this young man who was essentially beaten to death and - or died after this violent encounter with Memphis police. And I'm just wondering what went through your mind when you heard that.

WEATHERLY: Even though we had not seen the video before Friday, we knew that the way officials were speaking - government officials, the mayor, the director of the police department, the chief of the police department - that obviously, this was going to be one of those moments that echoed throughout the country because it's another one of those things on the list where unnecessary force seemed to be used to the point that person lost their life. Police entities, police departments to change their ways or at least evaluate their - all the ways that they interact with the public in the various situations, especially when there's not an immediately known threat that would result in the need for aggressive tactics. We have seen, as a nation, over the decades, moments where police went too far. And those moments can obviously have deadly consequences.

MARTIN: I also met Glenette Mayo and Courtney Davis (ph), lifelong members and friends at Centenary United Methodist Church. I asked what was going through their minds this Sunday at service.

GLENETTE MAYO: I can't comprehend. I can't digest.

MARTIN: That's Glenette Mayo again.

MAYO: And I try to understand how - five people on one person is just as bad. But then you - your job is to protect, and you lose all focus?

MARTIN: What about you, Mr. Davis? What comes to mind as you think about all of what has happened here?

COURTNEY DAVIS: As I unpacked it, especially today, as we stand in the very room that Martin Luther King had one of his finest final strategy meetings...

MAYO: Yes.

COURTNEY DAVIS: ...During the strike, during - in 1968, before his assassination, if you would look at - Ernest Withers has a collection of photographs. If you research it, you'll see a picture of Martin Luther King standing with the press on those very steps outside of that door. As we bring it full circle to today and the occurrences, it's just highly disappointing that in the last 55 years, that we have not come any further than this in the construct of our community.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, as a - if you don't mind - as a man, have you had these fears, growing up, of the police, of police encounters? You grew up here.

COURTNEY DAVIS: So it would have been 1985. The police were serving a search warrant on the wrong house, and that house happened to be my house. And I watched firsthand how, indiscriminately, the police did a no-knock warrant and came in with - the gentleman with the search warrant was actually around the corner at the house that they were supposed to break into. The - they claimed they made a drug buy at our house from my father at 2 o'clock in the morning, and my father worked 11 to 7. They had the wrong name on the search warrant. They tore the house up and never admitted - never, ever admitted - I was 15.

MARTIN: Just - we have just randomly stopped people and asked them to tell us what I've asked you. Just about every single person of color that we have spoken to has had a similar story like yours.

COURTNEY DAVIS: It's life. It's the way it is. It is actually the way it is. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.