MEMPHIS — Keedran Franklin, a community organizer and social justice activist, runs a South Memphis food truck these days called “The Check-in.” The idea, he said, is not only to feed the people of Memphis, but also to ask them how they are getting by, emotionally and spiritually, in one of the poorest large American cities, and one of the most dangerous.
“It’s a combustion chamber of trauma — that’s what Memphis is,” said Mr. Franklin, 36. “We push it down and push it down, until it explodes. That’s what happened with Tyre.”
The funeral this week for Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old FedEx employee and skateboarder who died after being severely beaten by Memphis police officers who said they pulled him over for a traffic infraction, triggered a national moment of mourning — for Mr. Nichols, and for the many other Black men brutalized at the hands of American police. At the same time, the bloody incident took its place on an ignominious roster of events that have shaped the story of Memphis as much as its 20th-century musical innovations, justly celebrated for transforming pop culture.
Situated in the heart of the South’s old cotton kingdom, on the lip of the Mississippi Delta, Memphis has always had a front seat to the brutal consequences of slavery and organized racism, tangibly reflected in the city’s 26.5 percent poverty rate for Black residents. And Memphians readily admit that the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel opened a gash in the collective psyche that has never quite healed.
This week, as an ice storm paralyzed much of the city, Memphians seemed to be taking stock, amid their rage and grief, of how far they have come and how far they must still go, if they are to not only endure the latest wound, but heal from it.
No one thinks it will be easy. Mr. Nichols’s treatment, by the men who kicked and punched him, and by other officers who did not intervene, suggest profound systemic flaws in a Memphis Police Department tasked with addressing a full-blown crime crisis. Even before his death, the city was still raw from the abduction and killing of a 34-year-old kindergarten teacher, Eliza Fletcher, in September, and a deadly shooting rampage that same month, purportedly carried out by Ezekiel Kelly, a 19-year-old who streamed some of it live on Facebook.
“I think it is a perfect way to describe Memphis right now: We are in trauma,” said Otis Sanford, a longtime newspaper columnist and historian of Memphis. “I don’t know when it started, honestly, but certainly within the last five months or six months, with Eliza Fletcher, with Ezekiel Kelly, with how we dealt with or tried to deal with Covid, then you throw in all the poverty that we’ve wrestled with for years. And now this.”
There have been other high-profile horrors. In 2018, Phil Trenary, the president of the local chamber of commerce, was fatally shot in the back of the head while walking downtown. In 2021, the rapper Young Dolph was gunned down at a cookie store.
Memphis, a city of 630,000 people, reported 302 homicides last year — a decline compared with 2021, in which the city reported a record-setting 346 homicides. New York City, by comparison, had 433 homicides last year, with a population of eight million plus. Mayor Jim Strickland of Memphis recently noted that property crime “dramatically increased” in 2022, and doubted whether people were feeling safer.
More on the Death of Tyre Nichols
This is the Memphis squeeze: a city in need of vigorous crime-fighting solutions, but one that is also reeling from a police abuse problem. It was easy to feel on Tuesday afternoon at Fabulous Flavors and Friends, a Black-owned diner where Mr. Franklin had ordered wings. Police officers were out in full force, many of them responding to traffic accidents on the slick roads, and Mr. Franklin spoke of them as an “occupying force.”
But at the counter, Tazz Fields, 40, a musician and studio owner, said he was increasingly concerned about leaving his house. “We don’t have enough protection,” he said. “For me, it’s becoming a place where you don’t want to go out.” At the grill, Precious Jones, the diner owner, agreed that the city needed more police.
If the interrelated problems of crime and violence are, to a great extent, a hangover of racist oppression, they are nonetheless problems that must now be solved, in part, by the Black Memphians who have a considerable number of seats at the municipal table. The fact that the first five officers charged in Mr. Nichols’s death were Black was painful for Black Memphis. But it also underscored how well represented Black people are in Memphis government.
Though Mr. Strickland, the current mayor, is white, Memphis has had Black mayors since 1992. The current police chief is Black, as are about 58 percent of the department’s commissioned officers. Black people hold an 8-5 majority on the City Council in a city that is about 65 percent Black, according to census figures.
Indeed, the image that modern-day Memphis often projects to the world is one in which Black genius, Black entrepreneurship and Black culture take center stage. Online, the nonprofit civic booster group We Are Memphis boasts that it is a city of opportunity and of “soul,” with a #bringyoursoul social media campaign featuring a multicultural mix of food, music and activism.
Tom Jones, a public policy consultant and longtime Memphis blogger, says the city deserves credit not only for celebrating its Blackness, but also for collectively confronting the legacy of racism.
“We wrestled with this for years,” said Mr. Jones, who is white. “Some people come to Memphis and say we talk too much about race. But the fact that we talk so much about race seems to be to be a positive attribute of the city.”
Many Memphians proudly note a 2017 study that found it to be the top-ranked city in the nation in philanthropic giving. Pride in local culture also tends to bind people across races — last month at Graceland, A C Wharton Jr., the city’s second Black mayor, delivered a warm talk at the funeral of Lisa Marie Presley — as does a shared passion for the Grizzlies, the city’s N.B.A. franchise, and a streak of dark humor. A popular T-shirt, noting the city’s location at the juncture of three states, declares, “When you’re bad, you get put in the corner.”
But the concern that liberal Memphis is repeatedly punished by more conservative, and white, outsiders is not just a joke.
In 2013, the Republican-dominated state legislature passed a law prohibiting, or at least seriously complicating, local governments’ ability to set a minimum wage above the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. (Tennessee is among a handful of states that have no minimum wage requirement of their own). And after the majority-Black city school district became part of the county district in 2013, six suburban districts broke away, abetted by the legislature, prompting allegations of racism and classism.
Memphians are also having a conversation about the extent to which their wounds are self-inflicted. Some say the city overemphasized building luxury housing and flashy amenities downtown at the expense of supporting poorer neighborhoods.
Councilman Martavius Jones said that the city’s transformation from cotton hub to distribution center created many jobs that require “a strong back and strong muscles.” However, he said, “The wages that go along with that are not very high. So when we are giving incentives to companies in those types of industries, I feel we’re just subsidizing our continued low wages.”
Mr. Franklin, the activist, said he spent years selling marijuana, in part because the jobs he worked after high school, including warehouse jobs, simply did not pay enough.
The Nichols case has also become entwined with the story of Mayor Strickland, a moderate Democrat wrapping up his second and final term by law. Mr. Strickland, a lawyer who prides himself on being a policy wonk and practical problem solver, was first elected in 2015 after advocating for what a campaign adviser called “zero tolerance with violent criminals.”
It was a mission that earned him the ire of liberal reformers, even as he was elected with significant Black support. “That’s dog-whistle stuff, man, in a city like Memphis,” said Josh Spickler, a former public defender and the executive director of Just City, a local criminal justice reform group.
Mr. Spickler and others have been critical of the mayor for touting the work of the Scorpion unit of the Memphis Police Department, a specialized group that focused on the areas of highest crime in the city. The five officers charged so far in Mr. Nichols’s death — they face second-degree murder and other charges — were members of the group, which the department disbanded after the incident.
Mr. Strickland’s office did not respond to an interview request. But Ben C. Adams Jr., the chairman of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, defended the mayor, noting that his administration had established after-school programs, policies to help recruit and retain police officers, and an intervention program for repeat offenders.
“I give the Strickland administration high marks for their continued effort and focus on this, and I’m as frustrated with the results as they are,” Mr. Adams said. “But it’s not for a lack of trying.”
A large contingent of mayoral hopefuls are expected to run this year to replace Mr. Strickland. Mr. Sanford said it remained to be seen if any of them could come up with a workable solution — one that results in less crime as well as criminal justice reform.
“The majority of Memphians feel like we need to do something about the crime,” he said. “But we cannot have lawlessness in the Police Department itself.”