Skip to contents
Criminal Justice

‘They Need to See’: RowVaughn Wells on What It Means to Attend the State of the Union Address

The mother of Tyre Nichols will be among the first family members of Black men killed by police to sit in the House chamber for the speech.

RowVaughn Wells walks into Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, on Feb. 1 to attend the funeral of her son Tyre Nichols. Nichols died days after he was violently beaten by Memphis police officers. (Lucy Garrett/Getty Images)

This story was originally published by The 19th.

RowVaughn Wells is nervous; at 61, she never expected to be the face of a movement, to visit the White House, or to be singled out in front of the nation by the president of the United States. Now, a month to the day since her son, Tyre Nichols, was brutally beaten by Memphis police officers, she is hoping to turn her pain and presence into action to prevent deadly encounters with law enforcement for other families.

Nichols died at 29 years old, three days after he was hospitalized for his injuries.

“In going to the State of the Union, hopefully we can share again what happened to our son, hopefully they can see that police reform is due,” Wells told The 19th on Monday night as she prepared to head to Washington with her husband and Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney, who will also attend. “They need to see, they need to see what happens to families when these tragic incidents happen.”

For the first time at a State of the Union address on Tuesday night, the mother of a Black man killed by police will be a guest of the first lady of the United States. Other parents with similar tragedies will be in attendance as the guests of members of the House of Representatives; they will be visible reminders of the parade of unarmed Black Americans who have lost their lives, representing families calling for change in the wake of tragedy. Most are mothers, who have largely been the face of the movement to demand action and accountability from lawmakers and the legal system.

Last month, President Joe Biden issued a statement and called the Wells family to offer condolences. On Wednesday, Vice President Kamala Harris attended Nichols’ funeral in Memphis at the invitation of his family. She sat next to the Wellses and embraced RowVaughn Wells before addressing mourners and the country, urging Congress to pass police reform legislation. 

“Mothers around the world, when their babies are born, pray to God, when they hold that child, that that body and that life will be safe for the rest of his life,” Harris said. “… This is a family that lost their son and their brother through an act of violence at the hands and the feet of people who had been charged with keeping them safe.”

RowVaughn Wells said it “meant a lot” for the vice president to attend the funeral and call for action. 

“We’re actually both from Oakland, California,” Wells said. “I hate that it had to be under these circumstances, but it was very nice for her to attend. It showed me that she had some compassion for the situation. We need to get a federal law passed. Other kids’ parents, they want this as well. So hopefully she can help and get it done.”

The president and vice president met with the Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday to discuss police reform. A measure named for George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police officers in 2020, stalled in the Senate last year. It is unclear whether any action at the federal level is possible in a politically divided Congress. 

Attorney Ben Crump, who has represented many of the families of the Black men killed by police over the past decade, said the moment is “long overdue.”

Biden “has to use his pulpit and all his influence to marshal the Senate and the House to make this a priority, because our children are dying,” Crump said.

The Wellses are scheduled to meet with Congressional Black Caucus members Tuesday morning and will visit the White House ahead of the State of the Union, scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. EST.

For the past month, RowVaughn Wells has had to grieve in public. She said she has received messages of sympathy “from around the world.” 

“It’s just amazing how people are responding to this, and how people are grieving behind the tragic loss of my son,” she said. “They had to open up their eyes to see that this really does exist.”

RowVaughn Wells is working to come to terms with the loss of her son. She said that Nichols was “on assignment from God” and that now “his assignment is over and he got to come home.” Her assignment now, she said, is to get justice.

“My son was just on his way home. Our family right now is devastated. He was the baby brother of the family … Those police officers took a shining, bright light away from our family,” Wells said. “Hopefully, by me attending the State of the Union, Congress will recognize that (the police) need to stop beating up and killing Black and brown young men as if they don’t mean anything. Maybe that’ll help them recognize, because this should never have happened to my son. Never.”