The Families of George Floyd and Rodney King Didn’t Ask to Be Part of History—But They Know They Are
Some people want to learn about the events that occur, others are more interested in forgetting. Sometimes, we are able to feel the events deep within our bones.
Sunday night, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C., I saw the way these dynamics are at play in the lives of people unwittingly thrust into history. Among the visitors were Lora King, daughter of Rodney King—accompanied by her children as well as her mother, Dennetta Lyles King, an ex-wife of Rodney King—and Bridgett Floyd, sister of George Floyd, and her children. None of the visitors had ever been to the museum before and none had spent any time with the women.
The women and the museum had been brought together by the Human Gathering, a group that one of its founders, Joshua Jordison, bills as an exclusive social organization that produces vacations, experiences—like museum tours—and social-improvement projects for its members. Some members are currently working to create an investment fund that they say will fund businesses in underserved communities as well as a nonprofit social justice organization guided by King, Floyd, and others who find themselves similarly situated to “leverage” the publicity they cannot avoid, one of the fund developers, Brian Forman, tells me. Many of those involved are present as well. Aaron Bryant, the museum director and Kevin Young are the guides. Bryant is a curator with stories to tell about his work in preserving history.
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Bryant tells us that most museums were constructed by robber barons who had new wealth and wanted a way to rise to the top or store their treasures. Museums exist that preserve images and reflect the lifestyles of royalty and rich. He says that the NMAAHC was established in 2016 to provide the honest truth. Sometimes, such as the summer 2020 or the next year, it may seem like this collection is just a bunch of tragedies and traumas, meant to satisfy curiosity and/or guilt. However, the Black history in America also includes triumph and tragedy as well as resilience, perseverance, innovation, and endurance. It’s a tale of happiness and sometimes, even, pain. This is how the entire museum works. Bryant told me that it has to be. BlackHe says that it is more than a topic of study and pity. It is an attitude. It’s a verb.
A room that contains remnants from a Portuguese slaveship is being explored by the group. Some people stop for a closer look at the display cases. There are three sets of shackles. The one in the middle is too small to be described. These were used to ensnare or enslave children. The museum is a popular destination for many people, who spend hours there. However, the majority of visitors move quickly to the 1960s. The lunch counter is located in a large hallway that can also accommodate a collection of trains cars. It’s where North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University students started their sit-in and inspired other similar ones across the South. The counter is surrounded by a number of large screens that display images taken from news cameras at the Edmund Pettus Bridge back in 1965. John Lewis (the future Congressman) has his blood on his collar.
We then enter an area that is strictly forbidden from taking photos and videos. We do not allow exceptions.
The sound of Mahalia Jackson’s rendition of “Amazing Grace” fills a small room. The back wall of the room is covered with an image showing mourners attending Emmett’s funeral. The bronze-colored coffin, in which Emmett Till was buried in 1955, is located in the middle of the room. Below is an image depicting Till as he looked in that terrible state after being kidnapped and beaten by two white men. The men then submerged Till’s body in water.
So many Black Americans feel that their place in American history is tied to the greatest tragedies they will ever see and their loved ones will never forget.
Bridgett Floyd looks at the coffin, and quickly exits the room. He takes a spot on a nearby bench. He watches her, stoic and still. Lora King follows her closely, but she makes her way to a larger space. There, Rosa Parks had a yellow dress she was making for herself when she refused to get out of her bus seat. This helped to set off the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and eventually the integration all public facilities in the United States. Parks worked for the NAACP as an investigator, secretary and a report writer. She had seen and heard many awful things—but, she later said, the bravery of Till’s mother Mamie Till-Mobley, who agreed to allow Jet Emmett’s photos were published in a magazine that compelled Emmett to do so.
Years later, in that same room, Trayvon Martin’s father, who had come to the museum on a similar private tour, bore witness to Till-Mobley’s painful choice to let the world see what two white men did to her son, Bryant tells me. Soon, conversations began between the museum and Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton. The materials that had been returned to them after a Florida jury acquitted the man who killed their teenage son—the hoodie, jeans, and shoes; the can of iced tea and bag of Skittles that he had been carrying when he was deemed suspect, followed, shot, and killed—had become too painful to store in their homes. They couldn’t bear to give them up.
“I told them that we would take them and keep them safe, forever,” Bryant recalls. A special box was created by the museum’s staff to transport the objects TrayvonMartin wore and touched the most. Bryant said that he was so emotional while Bryant made the objects. Fulton had to help him. Despite what was implied during the trial—that Martin was a large man—Bryant says they are very much the things of a scrawny kid. The exhibits were placed in September 2021 in a museum section dedicated to ongoing debates about birthright citizenship, equal protection of the law and their actual meanings.
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King tells me that she had to leave the Till coffin room because “that was heavy—very, very heavy.”
On Sunday night, as we moved toward the museum’s top floor and forward in time, King turned a corner and encountered the source of some of her own personal pain—pain that for many of the rest of us was a terrible national event observed, in some cases felt, but not carried. Just beyond an exhibit about the Poor People’s Campaign, the rise of the Black Power movement and a blown-up June 1974 TIME magazine cover featuring “Middle-Class Blacks” were screens capturing major moments and events of the 1990s and 2000s. Rodney King was found on the ground and being beaten by Los Angeles Police officers. Lora King stood silently watching in silence as he was beaten and kicked by Los Angeles Police officers.
Bryant later told me that Rodney King’s beating represented a turning point in American history. Bryant captured the moment on film, making all of us witnesses. Nothing needs to be said while standing before the video. Absolutely nothing. A jury found the officers innocent of state charges. This set off the 1992 L.A. Riots. The press turned their attention to Rodney King during them. “I just want to say, can’t we all get along? Can’t we all get along?” he famously said.
“If we could find a way to get along, imagine where we could be,” Lora King, 38, says now. “The United States, like it or not, is an example watched by the entire world.”
On Sunday evening, inside the museum, as King’s daughter stood watching the footage of her father’s ordeal, it was Bridgett Floyd who wrapped an arm around King’s waist. Both women supported each other as they slowly moved away.
“[Seeing the tape in the museum] hurt my soul but at the same time, it inspired me,” King says. She still remembers the father she lost when she was seven years old. She’s been in gyms, at parties, and in all sorts of awkward places where the tape is played or the King beating is brought up. “I want people to understand that: that’s a pain that’s unforgivable, unforgettable.”
The evening at the museum, King tells me later, made her tired—a sensation she rarely allows herself to feel.
“Who am I to be tired? “I try to allow myself to recall the experiences of my ancestors. [in slavery],” King says. When she is in need, she allows her time. She is the founder of a foundation. She works to end gang violence and provide mental health services for people. She runs seasonal food banks and toys banks. It is not just her family that has suffered. Her cousin James Byrd Jr. was the Texas man who was brutally beaten to death in Texas by three white men. “But I don’t really allow myself to be tired, to say I’m tired. Our experience may not be perfect, but it is still not comparable. There were babies being worked in fields, babies being raped,” she says. “So, I can truly say, Sunday, that was the first time in a long time I’ve said out loud, I’m tired.”
Tired, she says, that 30 years after her father’s ordeal, his plea for harmony remains unrealized. Although it’s true that life can be more complex than just getting along. And King’s 1992 admonition was not received well by all ears even at the time; the phrase, some felt, implied a two-sided conflict with equal responsibility on both sides. The reality couldn’t be further from that: Rodney King was alone, with no gun, on the ground while he was beaten; when he drowned a decade ago, it was after years dealing with permanent brain damage and lingering, untreated mental anguish, his daughter told me. Two men were found guilty of Emmett till’s murder after Emmett had allegedly been in an affair with a woman of color. They confessed their crimes to Emmett through a magazine. Trayvon Martin was out to get candy, but he never returned home. George Floyd went out for candy and never returned. He was only asked to go to court to face charges of using a counterfeit small bill. Instead, a Minneapolis police officer took his life on the street, while several others watched.
One of the final leg(s) of the tour, Sunday inside the museum, took them inside an art-gallery called Reckoning. Among the works on display are images of the massive protests that followed the May 2020 death of George Floyd, and an image of the Rodney King beating in which, as King’s granddaughter put it at first sight, “Grandaddy is missing.” The artist cut the shape of King’s body out of the image leaving an illuminated void.
Bisa Butler has created a quilted, intricate portrait of Harriet Tubman around one corner. The dark skin on Tubman’s face is rendered in strips of red, black, and blue silk, velvet, and cotton, creating the effect of a face that has seen and done and endured remarkable things. In a kinda recessed, black-walled alcove, a picture is located across the hall. This time it’s a portrait painted by Amy Sherald. It’s Breonna Taylor, awash in blue, bathed in light.
King later tells me that this is similar to what George Holliday did in 1991 when he took out his camera and continued filming while officers beat her father.
“What he did was shine a light on this thing,” says King. “This horrible thing that yeah, is still with us—but today, that it exists can not be denied. To me that’s an incredible, incredible thing.”