Black '1870' pins worn by Congress members for State of the Union have deep significance

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus wore black pins with the number “1870” on them, which marks the year of the first known police killing of an unarmed and free Black person in the U.S.

Black '1870' pin
An "1870" pin to be worn by members of the Congressional Black Caucus and others at the State of the Union address. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos courtesy of the office of Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty Images)

At President Biden's State of the Union speech Tuesday in which he addressed the country’s top issues before Congress, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other Democrats made a bold statement of their own — albeit a silent one.

Many of them wore black pins with the number “1870” on them, which marks the year of the first known police killing of an unarmed and free Black person that occurred in the U.S. The pins are a call for action on reforming the institution of policing that has killed thousands of Black people in the 153 years since.

“I’m tired of moments of silence. I’m tired of periods of mourning,” New Jersey Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat who came up with the idea to create the pins, told Yahoo News ahead of the speech. “I wanted to highlight that police killings of unarmed Black citizens have been in the news since 1870, and yet significant action has yet to be taken.”

Bonnie Watson Coleman
Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman at an event at the Capitol to demand that Congress renew an assault weapons ban, July 12, 2016. (Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for

On March 31, 1870, 26-year-old Henry Truman, a Black man, was shot and killed by Philadelphia Officer John Whiteside after being accused of shoplifting from a grocery store.

Whiteside had allegedly chased Truman into an alley when at some point Truman turned to ask what he had done wrong, and the officer fatally shot him, according to an account in the Philadelphia Inquirer the following day. At trial, Whiteside claimed he had been ambushed by a crowd while he chased Truman. Whiteside was later convicted of manslaughter. That same year the country adopted the 15th Amendment, which granted Black men the right to vote.

Over a century and a half since Truman’s killing, a steady stream of Black people have been killed by law enforcement, including 1,353 since 2017, according to data from Statista, a digital insights company. In fact, Black Americans are three times as likely to be killed by police as white people are, and they account for 1 in 4 police killings despite making up just 13% of the country’s population.

Many of the parents, siblings and children of Black people killed by police over the last decade were invited to Tuesday’s address as guests of members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The guest list included the families of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old who was gunned down by Cleveland police in 2014 on a playground; Amir Locke, the 22-year-old fatally shot by Minneapolis police in a predawn, no-knock raid last year; Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old fatally beaten by Memphis police during a traffic stop early last month; and a dozen other families who have lost loved ones.

“I hope today that we can get Congress to see that we need to pass this bill because this should never happen,” Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells, said Tuesday afternoon at a press conference with the Congressional Black Caucus. “I don’t wish this on my worst enemy.”

Rep. Steven Horsford, left, with RowVaughn Wells
RowVaughn Wells, mother of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police officers, speaks with reporters on Tuesday about police reform. (Cliff Owen/AP)

In contrast, several Republicans chose to honor members of law enforcement as their guests, including Rep. Mike Garcia of California, who brought Tania Owen, a retired detective and widow of a Los Angeles County sheriff’s sergeant who was shot and killed by a suspect when he answered a burglary-in-progress call in 2016. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York and Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer of Oregon hosted police officers from their respective districts.

The invitations came after several other Republicans last week, during National Gun Violence Survivors Week, were photographed wearing AR-15 pins, which were passed out by Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia on the House floor. Clyde claimed the pins were “to remind people of the Second Amendment of the Constitution and how important it is in preserving our liberties.”

Many police reform advocates have argued that the systemic issues tied to policing transcend even racial lines, highlighting the fact that the five main officers involved in the brutal beating of Nichols were also Black.

“Blackness doesn’t shield you from all of the forces that make police violence possible,” James Forman Jr., a Yale law school professor and expert on race and law enforcement, told the New York Times. “What are the theories of policing and styles of policing, the training that police receive? All of those dynamics that propel violence and brutality are more powerful than the race of the officer.”

Karundi Williams, CEO of Re:power, an organization that trains Black people to become political leaders, told NBC News that addressing the core issues is the only way to prevent more killings.

“When we have moments of racial injustice that is thrust in the national spotlight, there is an uptick of outrage, and people take to the streets,” Williams said. “But then the media tends to move on to other things, and that consciousness decreases. But we never really got underneath the problem.”

Protesters gather at the Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland, Calif., to protest the police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis
Protesters in Oakland, Calif., on Jan. 29 to protest the police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In 2022 alone, police killed 1,192 people, more than any year in the past decade, according to a new report released last week by the nonprofit Mapping Police Violence. Black people accounted for more than 300 of those killings. The report also claimed that many of these killings could have been avoided by changing law enforcement’s approach to such encounters, such as sending mental health providers to certain 911 calls.

But substantial police reform has continued to lag.

The 2021 George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which was put forth following the murder of 46-year-old Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020, seeks to end excessive force, qualified immunity and racial bias in policing and to combat police misconduct. The bill passed the House of Representatives twice in the previous Congress, but has continued to fail in the Senate.

"With the support of families of victims, civil rights groups, and law enforcement, I signed an executive order for all federal officers banning chokeholds, restricting no-knock warrants, and other key elements of the George Floyd Act," Biden said in his State of the Union speech. "Let’s commit ourselves to make the words of Tyre’s mother come true, something good must come from this."

Following the recent police killing of Nichols, members of the Black Caucus are cautiously optimistic that change will soon come.

“This unfortunately reignites the fervor and the necessity and the urgency,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, a ranking member of the Judiciary Subcommittee for Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, recently told Yahoo News. “With 18,000 police communities, there has to be a federal law that addresses the training and the relationship between police. We have to restart.”

President Biden and Vice President Harris meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Oval Office last week
President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Oval Office last week. (Susan Walsh/AP)

An info card attached to the black pin given to members of the Black Caucus expresses the frustration of numerous police killings from Truman to Nichols.

“153 years later, nothing has changed,” the note reads in part. “We are tired of mourning and demand change.”