Family and friends of Nichols gather in Memphis church to pay their final respects to Black 29-year-old father whose fatal beating by police last month transformed him into new face of US racial justice movement.

RowVaughn Wells stops in front of the casket of her son Tyre Nichols at the start of his funeral service in Memphis, Tennessee.
RowVaughn Wells stops in front of the casket of her son Tyre Nichols at the start of his funeral service in Memphis, Tennessee. (AFP)

Hundreds have gathered in a Memphis city church to bid farewell to Tyre Nichols, an African American man who died after being brutally beaten by US police, with civil rights leaders Al Sharpton leading the high-profile service attended by Vice President Kamala Harris.

Speaking over a flower-bedecked casket at the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, preachers on Wednesday recalled a young man who loved photography and skateboarding, and demanded justice for Nichols and an end to police violence against Black people.

The relatives of other Black people killed by police in cities across the United States came to offer comfort to Nichols' family, including a woman from Texas whose son was killed by a Houston police officer, who sang before a black-clad gospel choir.

Vice President Kamala Harris flew to Memphis and embraced Nichols' mother, RowVaughn Wells, in the pews before addressing the congregation.

"This is a family that lost their son and their brother through an act of violence at the hands and the feet of people who had been charged with keeping them safe," Harris said. 

"Tyre Nichols should have been safe."

Nichols died on January 10 in a hospital from wounds he sustained three days earlier when beaten by Memphis police who pulled him over while he was driving home, an incident that Ben Crump, an attorney for the family, has branded a "police lynching."

The Memphis Police Department fired five of the officers, who also are Black. Prosecutors charged them last week with second-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, official misconduct and oppression.

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'Thugs' and traitors

The civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton, who has often spoken at the funerals of victims of police brutality, decried the five officers as "thugs" and traitors to their race as he eulogised Nichols in the city where the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

"You didn't get on the police department by yourself," Sharpton said as the congregation clapped and shouted. 

"People had to march and go to jail and some lost their lives to open the doors for you, and how dare you act like that sacrifice was for nothing?"

Sharpton said the officers who beat Nichols might have acted differently if there was real accountability for their actions. He also said he believes that if Nichols had been white, "you wouldn't have beat him like that."

Two other officers implicated in the events leading to Nichols' death have been relieved of duty — effectively suspended — and are under investigation. 

Two paramedics and their on-scene supervisor were dismissed on Monday from the city fire department, while two Shelby County sheriff's deputies have been suspended.

Police video of the confrontation released by the city on Friday showed officers dousing Nichols with pepper spray and pummeling him with punches, kicks and baton blows as he cried out for his mother. One officer was seen firing a Taser stun gun at Nichols when he attempted to flee.

Civil rights advocates and lawyers for Nichols' family have condemned the beating as the latest case of a Black person brutalised by a racially biased law enforcement system that disproportionately targets people of color, even when officers involved are not white.

Among the mourners on Wednesday were relatives of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, two African Americans whose deaths at the hands of police sparked protests in 2020 against racism and police brutality.

Nichols grew up in Sacramento, California, and moved to Memphis early in the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. He had a four-year-old son and took a daily supper break from his FedEx job to join his stepfather and co-worker for meals at his home.

Antonio Romanucci, another lawyer for his family, has said Nichols also was a strong supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, saying it was a cause for which he gave his life, "and essentially what that makes him is a martyr."

A montage of photos of Nichols and images from protests that followed the news of his death were shown on large screens.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies