Opinion: Nancy Pelosi’s gratitude, and the problem with Black martyrdom

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks outside the Capitol.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks outside the Capitol along with, from left, Reps. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus after the guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

On Tuesday, hours after a former Minneapolis police officer was convicted of murdering George Floyd, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) made a poor choice of words at a news conference with members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice,” she said. “Because of you and because of thousands, millions of people around the world who came out for justice, your name will always be synonymous with justice.”

The online backlash was swift; Pelosi followed up with a tweet emphasizing that “George Floyd should be alive today,” and adding, “He did not die in vain.” She called for enactment of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a much-needed police accountability measure.


It is easy to take cheap shots at leaders who make gaffes, and this mini-furor will subside.

Her phrasing sat somewhere between awkward and offensive, but it’s clear that Pelosi did not mean to thank George Floyd for being murdered. Still — inadvertently — she underscored the fact that Black martyrdom has been an all-too-real phenomenon throughout America’s troubled history.

The roster of Black martyrdom to the cause of civil rights and racial equality — just since the 1950s — is staggering: Emmett Till. Medgar Evers. The four little girls in Birmingham. James Chaney. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

These are the famous ones. Among the Black Lives Matter movement’s many accomplishments has been the insistence, as with Breonna Taylor, on saying the names of victims of police violence, to ensure they are not forgotten. To acknowledge Black humanity and dignity is only a tiny first step — but a necessary one — if America is ever to move forward from the tragedies of genocide and enslavement that accompanied this nation’s birth and emergence and have tarnished its noble ideals.

The dead cannot be thanked; they are indifferent to the gratitude (or any other emotions) expressed by the living. In a nation with strong Christian traditions, it is understandable to seek meaning in the nihilism of death, especially violent deaths. Yes, we must remember our martyrs, but the only true path forward is to achieve justice — the justice that our martyrs were denied.