As life was ebbing out of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street, he called out for his mother. “Mama, I’m through,” he said in a bystander video that has since reverberated around the world. “I can’t move... Mama… Mama… I can’t.”
The Reverend Al Sharpton was surprised, then, to learn from Floyd’s family that their mother had died years ago.
“I know why George was calling for mama,” Sharpton said during a memorial service on Thursday at North Central University in downtown Minneapolis. “Maybe he was calling his mama because at the point he was dying, she was stretching his hands out, saying, ‘Come on George, I welcome you where the wicked will cease from troubling, where the weary will be at rest.’ There’s a place where police won't put knees on your neck, George.”
Floyd’s family bid him farewell on Thursday in the first of a series of memorial services for the 46-year-old, who died after white police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, while two other officers held down his back and legs and one stopped concerned bystanders from stepping in.
His death has sparked ten days of protests that quickly spread from Minnesota to all 50 states and dozens more countries around the world.
There were more people outside than inside the small sanctuary on the picturesque NCU campus. Hundreds gathered to pay their respects and listen to a string of speakers, whose voices came through loudspeakers, echoing off brick buildings on a normally deserted campus.
Among them were Al and Stacy Varner, lifelong residents of St. Paul. While Floyd’s death was “heartbreaking,” Stacy Varner said, her husband said it’s resulted in positive change—and may result in the criminal justice reform many have been calling for for years.
“The good thing about all this is seeing everyone coming together,” he said. “It takes more than one race to do this. It takes everybody to do this.”
Known to friends as Big George or Big Floyd, the 46-year-old was called ‘Perry,’ his middle name, by those closest to him. His siblings described him as a large personality, whom others gravitated towards.
“George, he was like a general everyday,” one of Floyd’s brothers, Philonese, said. “He walks outside and there’d be a line of people... wanting to greet him and wanting to have fun with him.”
His siblings remembered the massive plates of food, prepared by their mother, that would be waiting for them whenever they came back to their home in Houston’s Third Ward after a day of playing. They recalled growing up without a dryer, instead putting their wet clothes in the oven.
“We didn't have much growing up… but we had a house full of love,” Floyd’s youngest brother, Rodney, said.
His cousin, Shareeduh Tate, said she would miss his hugs the most. “When he would wrap his arms around you, any problems you had, any concerns you had would go away,” she told the audience.
In between gospel music, Sharpton delivered a fiery eulogy decrying the oppression of black Americans and announcing the family would hold a massive march on Washington in August to call for legislation for federal policing equality.
“George Floyd’s story has been the story of black folks,” he said. “Ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed to be, is you kept your knee on our neck. We were smarter than the underfunded schools you put us in, but you had your knee on our neck. We could run corporations and not hustle in the street, but you had your knee on our neck.
“What happened to Floyd happens everyday in this country—in education, in health services, and in every area of American life. It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, ‘Get your knee off our necks.’”
Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo took a knee as Floyd’s gold casket arrived at NCU.
Actor Kevin Hart and rappers Ludacris and T.I. attended along with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.
Memorials will also be held on Saturday near Floyd’s birthplace in Raeford, North Carolina, and in Houston on Monday. He will be buried in a private ceremony in Houston on Tuesday.