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Crowds Gather For George Floyd's Memorial In Houston

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The city of Houston begins two days remembering and mourning George Perry Floyd Jr. Today his body lay in an open coffin in a megachurch for the public to pay respects. Though he died in Minneapolis, killed in police custody, it is Houston that fondly remembers "Big Floyd," as he was known there. NPR's John Burnett has this report.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: George Floyd spent most of his life here in Houston's Third Ward. He was a star athlete in basketball and football at Jack Yates High School, a popular towering teenager with dreams of going pro. One day, he was sitting around laughing and talking with friends between classes, recalls Mary Ginns, who considered herself his big sister. And out of the blue, he announced...

MARY GINNS: I'm going to change the world. I'm going to do something great. And we were like, we know you are. You're going to be in the NBA (laughter). We're thinking that way. But God put something in him to see it a different way. He probably didn't know at the time what he was saying, of course. But look at today. It's manifested. And that is exactly what he did. He has changed this world.

BURNETT: George Floyd has changed the world with his death, says Ginns, in a way that he never did in life. Today she runs a beauty salon. And on this day, she's wearing a T-shirt that reads, we can't breathe. With demonstrations across the country and in world capitals, Floyd's death appears to be the tipping point that has caused an uprising over the unjust treatment of black suspects by some white police.

GINNS: For a person to say, I'm going to change the world, and you're changing it with every city and state and country standing for you, that speaks volumes on your life. So whatever you did bad, what you were doing good now outstood the bad.

BURNETT: George Floyd lived a tough life. He grew up in the Cuney Homes, a public housing complex, some of whose residents struggled with poverty and crime. At points in his life, Floyd wrestled with drug addiction and acquired a police record. He was charged with armed robbery and spent four years in prison for a home invasion in which six men were convicted of robbing a woman at gunpoint. Floyd sang about his life as a collaborator with the Houston rapper DJ Screw. Those 25-year-old mixtapes are now a hot item in the Third Ward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SITTIN ON TOP OF THE WORLD")

UNIDENTIFIED RAPPER: (Rapping) Do a little something, and sit on top the world (unintelligible).

BURNETT: But it's important to note that George Floyd's legacy here in the Third Ward is not as a criminal but as a mentor to young men and a regular participant in a church that held services inside the public housing complex known as The Bricks. Lawrence Bell is a 24-year-old actor who was in a youth group that helped put on the church service on Sunday mornings. He says everyone knew the gentle giant who was George Floyd, who acted as a security guard and a sort of acolyte.

LAWRENCE BELL: So George was the big OG that was always around talking to people that we didn't know, bringing them closer to the service. Floyd was the one that gave the idea for us to baptize people on the basketball court. And Big Floyd would bring people over that would be walking by from the corner store, maybe coming from just buying a gram or buying, you know, some liquor. Like, he would bring those people over.

BURNETT: Today in Houston, a long line of people waited under a punishing Gulf Coast sun to pay respects to the body of George Floyd at the Fountain of Praise church.

STEVEN COLEMAN: I was extremely emotional because that very well could have been me.

BURNETT: Steven Coleman owns a local insurance and investment company.

COLEMAN: We were the same age, born in the same year. That very well could have been me. I truly feel like this is an example of the social injustices that are going on. And at the end of the day, it's all about justice.

BURNETT: Tomorrow at the same church, George Floyd will be eulogized and then put to rest in the cemetery next to his mother, known in the Third Ward as Miss Cissy.

John Burnett, NPR News, Houston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.