The Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC) recently announced plans to host the Bland, George, Tolan Lecture by Dr. Biko Mandela Gray to take place on Saturday, February 11, 2023, at 2:00 pm.
In 2021, HMAAC completed its Stairwell of Memory, highlighted by local artists—Shawn Artis, Ted Ellis, and Cedric Ingram—portraits of Sandra Bland, George Floyd and Robbie Tolan for community memory, and to give comfort to mothers that their children will not be forgotten. The lecture will bring together Geneva Bland, Marian Tolan, and Lezley McSpadden—the mothers respectively of Sandra Bland, Robbie Tolan, and Michael Brown.
The lecture could not be more timely.
On January 7th—less than three years after George Floyd was murdered—Memphis police officers stopped 29-year-old Tyre Nichols for a traffic violation and then beat him so viciously that he was hospitalized and died three days later. It reminded us of so many such senseless beatings and shootings, including those of Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, and locally of Robbie Tolan and Sandra Bland. Over the years, reports of these and other people beaten and killed by the police made the failures of our criminal justice system part of national conversations that ended within months.
However, in 2020, when the world watched Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murder Floyd, the conversation began anew and seemed different. Police chiefs around the country immediately and unequivocally acknowledged the Floyd killing and Floyd’s cry of “I Can’t Breathe” led to larger and racially diverse protests across the country and around the world. But then the protests died down, the brightly colored Black Lives Matter murals began to fade, and proposed national reforms were never enacted. Last year, in fact, police killed more people than they had in any year since experts began tracking these killings.
According to HMAAC CEO John Guess, Jr., “It seems like it takes another viral killing to restart the national conversation about police reform. That’s why we installed the Stairwell of Memory, and why we started the Bland, George, Tolan Lecture; we don’t want the conversation to get lost.”
“Yet here we are again with the Lecture and Memphis, asking broad questions about what we empower police to do, how to restore trust between law enforcement and communities they serve and eliminating qualified immunity,” Guess continued.
HMAAC has had a long history of exhibitions and programs to ensure police violence and reform remained part of a public conversation. Guess curated two exhibitions in 2018, Sandra Bland and Indifference, that drew thousands of visitors. In the case of the Bland exhibition, visitors were given a seat in a car to make them feel a part of the filmed Bland police stop, and a chapel was installed where many visitors were allowed to decompress, many of them crying. With Indifference, visitors were seated in a room where hours of film of police brutality toward Black women, men and children surrounded them. Most left the room within minutes of experiencing the equivalent of hours of Tyre Nichols footage.
In September of 2021, Ava DuVernay, as part of her Law Enforcement Accountability Project (LEAP) chose HMAAC to be the first stop for the Delita Martin commissioned mural Blue is the Color We See When We Die, that chronicled the killing of Bastrop, Texas’ Yvette Smith by Sheriff Deputy Daniel Willis in 2014—the same year Michael Brown was killed outside of St. Louis. The mural subsequently was moved from HMAAC to the Equal Justice Initiative, founded by Bryan Stevenson.