HOUSTON (CN) — Strains of “Amazing Grace” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” broke out among the mourners filing into a Houston church Monday to view George Floyd’s body.
An estimated 10,000 people came out on the blistering hot afternoon to pay their respects to Floyd at the Fountain of Praise church in Houston, his hometown.
Laid in an open casket, Floyd was dressed in a light brown suit and tie.
All visitors had to wear masks. Volunteers quickly ushered them through the church, telling them no pictures were allowed inside and pointing out circles on the floor laid out to ensure they stayed six feet apart from each other.
“I’m at a loss for words. I’m not going to lie. It’s almost like I can’t breathe you know. Just to actually see it in reality. It’s kind of overwhelming,” said Dave Washington of New Orleans after seeing Floyd’s corpse.
He brought his flugelhorn and played some songs outside the church that he had learned playing for a choir growing up. He said he also played at his mom’s and dad’s funerals. “That’s my release,” he said.
“It’s a lot to take it in,” he added. “I know he is not my immediate family but in the end that’s still my family in there. That’s still my brother in there man. It hurts the same,” said Washington, before walking away staring at the ground.
The open casket called to mind Emmett Till’s funeral 65 years ago in Chicago.
Though his late mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, said his face was so mutilated she did not recognize him after two white men in Mississippi tortured and shot him in August 1955, then dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River, she decided to let the public see the barbarity of his lynching.
Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam confessed to murdering the 14-year-old Till four months after an all-white jury found them not guilty of the crime. They never spent a day in jail for it.
They said they killed Till because he supposedly whistled at Bryant’s then-21-year-old wife Carolyn Bryant outside the Bryant family’s grocery store in Money, Mississippi.
The FBI in 2017 opened an investigation into Till’s murder after the publication of the book “The Blood of Emmett Till,” in which Carolyn Bryant is quoted telling the author Timothy Tyson she lied on the witness stand when she said that Till had grabbed her around the waist and propositioned her.
Till’s cousin Deborah Watts said Floyd’s death has stirred up a lot of pain for her.
She lives in Minneapolis where former policeman Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for several minutes on Memorial Day and two other officers laid down on his back, unmoved as Floyd cried out for his mother and said “I cannot breathe.” The killing was witnessed by millions of people after a passerby filmed the arrest and posted it on social media.
“When I saw it, I couldn’t help being overcome by grief and anger and shock that it would happen right in front of our eyes like that,” Watts said Monday in a phone interview.
“And to witness the inhumane and brutal way that he was murdered after he told the officer’s he couldn’t breathe. And they just totally just ignored his pleas and his cries. And it draws me back to Emmett … There was probably a similar cry for help, a cry for his mother as well.”
Though the FBI has yet to finish its investigation, Watts said she is hoping a district attorney in Mississippi will present Till’s case to a grand jury and that Bryant will be charged for murder.
She said she doubts the elderly Bryant will have to stand trial but believes she is the key to the truth about what happened in that store in Mississippi, as Milam and Roy Bryant are both dead.
“So whether she sits in jail or is prosecuted any way, we still want the truth. We still want the record set straight. We know that Emmett did not do the things that she claims that he did,” said Watts, whose great-grandfather was the brother of Till’s great-grandfather.
“She has an opportunity before she takes her last breath to clarify all that or to at least tell the truth,” Watts added.
Watts is the co-founder and executive director of the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation, which has been pushing Congress to pass a law making lynching a federal crime.
Alongside the road outside Floyd’s memorial service people were selling T-shirts with his face emblazoned on them and Black Lives Matter facemasks with a collage of photos of black people killed by police.
A group of photographers surrounded Brittney Taylor in the line to the church as she sang verses of “Amazing Grace.”
Taylor, whose stage name is Flawless Breeze, said she sings at church, writes music and used to sing at a club. “I have a few little mixtape songs. But just be looking out for one called ‘Breathe Again,’” she said.
She said she respects the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for coming to Houston on Monday to meet with Floyd’s family.
Biden will not attend Floyd’s private funeral Tuesday but will record a video message for the service, Houston’s NPR affiliate reported.
Floyd will be buried next to his mother.
Taylor said she respects everybody who has come out in support of Floyd, whose death has prompted nightly protests in cities around the world.
“I respect anybody who is trying to stand for a change and wants to be a help to somebody in need. They need all the love right now, this family, because the way that it happened. It shouldn’t have happened like that,” she said.
Floyd, 46, grew up in a public housing complex in southeast Houston. His mom raised him and his five siblings there in a small apartment with income from her job at a burger stand, the Houston Chronicle reported.
She also took in two neighbor kids after their mother went to prison.
At Floyd’s memorial service Thursday in Minnesota, his younger brother Philonise Floyd reminisced about them eating banana and mayonnaise sandwiches as children.
Floyd was the first of his siblings to graduate from high school in 1993.
The center on his high school basketball team, Floyd was recruited to play basketball at South Florida Community College. But he left the school in 1995 and, after a short stint at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, he returned to Houston, according to the Chronicle.
The pitfalls of his childhood neighborhood started to bring him down and from 1997 to 2007 he was arrested nine times on charges ranging from drug possession, to petty theft and trespassing, court records show.
After pleading guilty to aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon in 2009, Floyd served four years in a state prison.
He moved to Minnesota in 2017 to seek drug addiction treatment at a center in Minneapolis and found work as a bouncer at a restaurant-nightclub.
He had reportedly lost the job after the restaurant closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
On Memorial Day, employees of a grocery store called police and said Floyd had paid for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.
Chauvin was one of four officers who responded to the scene. Floyd stiffened up while they were trying to move him to the back of a squad car and fell to the ground, according to an arrest report.
The 6-foot-6 Floyd reportedly said he was not resisting but he was claustrophobic and did not want to be put into the back of a police car.
Watts, Till’s cousin, said there is a “bold sick line” denoting America’s racism problems drawn from Till to Floyd.
“And we need to stop it. We need to erase it. We need to make sure we right the wrongs. Both historically and those that are happening today,” she said.
She is hopeful Bryant will be held accountable, one way or another, for her role in Till’s murder.
“I think if we get this right for Emmett we can get it right for the rest of our country,” she said. “The same thing for George, if we can get this right for George Floyd I think we have a pathway forward to get it right for any other violent acts of hate and racism that may occur in the future.”