'A bittersweet day': Celebrating what should have been a momentous birthday mark of Tyre Nichols

Music enveloped Fourth Bluff Park Monday evening, and people were dancing and singing under the clouds. After speeches and performances in tribute to Tyre Nichols, who died after he was beaten by police officers, a red sunset poked from the clouds, bathing canvas prints of photos he had taken during his time in Memphis.

Hundreds of people gathered in the Downtown Memphis park to celebrate what would have been Nichols' 30th birthday. Some were skating along Front Street, which was sectioned off and turned into a skate park for the evening, while others watched from the park.

The celebration took place almost five months after Nichols died after being beaten by multiple now-former officers from the Memphis Police Department. His autopsy, which was released a month ago, said the cause of death was blunt force trauma to his head.

Though still mourning the loss of her son, RowVaughn Wells told the crowd Monday morning was especially difficult, but said that the support from the community was "beautiful."

"This is a bittersweet day," Wells told the crowd. "When I woke up this morning, it was my son's birthday. He made 30 years old. But he didn't come into my room this morning so I could give him a hug. So I had a little breakdown there today...But I just want to say I appreciate each and every one of you for coming out and sharing this occasion with our family. This is just beautiful."

The evening was filled with laughter, music and food. A drumline from Memphis Youth Arts Initiative opened the night, children from Ladia Yates Entertainment Academy performed dance routines on stage, and were followed by singers and poets.

Nichols, in the months since his death, has been remembered as a creative and kind person, with his photography of the Memphis sunset over the Mississippi River becoming a prominent aspect of his legacy in Memphis. The canopy in the newly renovated Tom Lee Park was named in Nichols' honor, and his parents signed the first board that was lifted to the structure's ceiling.

RowVaughn and Rodney Wells were both invited to the 2023 State of the Union, and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke at Nichols' funeral. RowVaughn Wells was named to the TIME Magazine's 100 most influential people of 2023 list as well.

Nichols' love for skateboarding saw his hometown of Sacramento dedicate a skate park in his honor, and skateboarding legend Tony Hawk donate to a fund to build a skatepark dedicated to Nichols in Memphis. Skateboarders in Memphis took part in peaceful protests across the city, and an art gallery centered around skateboards and Nichols' post-mortem legacy was unveiled in late March at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel.

"This is so beautiful, you got guys on the skateboards, falling and crashing," Nichols' father, Rodney Wells, said on stage. "You know that's what Tyre Nichols did — fall and crash. But he always got back up, and he got back up with a smile on his face. He had the most beautiful smile that anybody could see. And this has put a smile on my face."

A block of Front Street was cordoned off, and turned into a mobile skate park. Rails and ramps were scattered across the street, with skaters jumping and grinding the obstacles. The centerpiece — a unique ramp and rail combination, according to its creator Dave Shyne of Ramparts Premium Skatepark Kits — featured a silhouette of Nichols and the words "Keep pushing for Tyre" along one side.

"It's just awesome to see everybody out like this. This doesn't happen a whole lot," said Luke Sexton, one of the skate organizers. "If we could take a tragedy and make something positive out of it, which I think has started to happen and is going to continue to happen, this means the world to us."

As the night's speakers finished, a custom cake bearing Nichols' image, and topped with a camera, was brought on stage. As attendees crowded to see, and take pictures, of the cake, an artist gave RowVaughn Wells a portrait of her son.

Though she said she was not able to hug her son for his birthday, Wells — with tears under her eyes — embraced the canvass before bringing it up and appearing to kiss it.

In mid-April, prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump and co-counsel Antonio Romanucci filed a $550 million civil lawsuit against each of the officers and Memphis Fire Department personnel, along with the City of Memphis and MPD Chief Cerelyn "C.J." Davis, citing multiple forms of negligence. At the announcement, Crump said, "The amount we are suing for is a message."

"It is our mission to make it financially unsustainable for these police oppression units to unjustly kill Black people in the future," Crump said.

Nichols was pulled over Jan. 7 for what police initially said was reckless driving, though the department would later say there was no evidence to say Nichols had driven recklessly.

Also: Tyre Nichols' family files lawsuit against MPD, citing multiple forms of negligence

He was pulled from his car by officers from MPD's SCORPION Unit, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods, and dragged to the ground. He was pepper sprayed and given multiple, conflicting commands by the officers and eventually jumped up and began running to his mother's house. Now-former Officer Preston Hemphill fired his taser at Nichols.

He was tackled by other officers about 1,000 yards from Wells' house. Officers proceeded to punch, kick, pepper spray and hit Nichols with a baton. He was bruised and bleeding when officers pulled his body across the pavement and leaned him against an unmarked squad car.

Officers milled around for the next 20 minutes, some talking and some laughing, until emergency medical technicians arrived. Those EMTs did not appear to provide much medical attention to Nichols in video footage released by the City of Memphis.

Nichols was eventually taken to St. Francis Hospital in critical condition. He died three days later.

Five now-former MPD officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin, Desmond Mills and Justin Smith — face criminal charges including second-degree murder and kidnapping. Hemphill, Mulroy announced May 2, will not going to face criminal charges and is expected to testify for the prosecution.

Jacob Wilt is a reporter with The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached at Jacob.Wilt@commercialappeal.com.

Lucas Finton is a criminal justice reporter with The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached at Lucas.Finton@commercialappeal.com and followed on Twitter @LucasFinton.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Tyre Nichols' legacy 5 months later, when he would've turned 30