One of the police commanders who had been on the ground in Ferguson last week came away convinced that what has happened there changes everything.
“This is a generational event,” he said.
From now on, he said, local public policy decisions will be measured in “pre-Ferguson” and “post-Ferguson” terms. The challenge for this community, for its cops and politicians and civic leaders, as well as residents of all races and all addresses, is how we adapt to life after Ferguson.
St. Louis hasn’t gone through anything like this in 51 years, not since the Jefferson Bank protests that began in late August of 1963. No one died in those protests, but nearly a hundred protesters were arrested. Shamefully, some of them were jailed until March.
At issue were hiring practices among city businesses. The civic and political leaders of that day dragged their feet. The police and judicial system backed them up. It took federal court intervention in March 1964 to embarrass the city’s leaders into changing policies.
That was a different time. There was no 24-hour news cycle, no social media, little in the way of international interest in this story. There were civil rights stories all over the country, many more dramatic than people sitting on the floor of a bank and being hauled off to jail.
But this one was ours. And it did some good, created some jobs, spawned a generation of leaders. The city’s 26th ward alderman, William L. Clay, Sr., was among the leaders who was jailed. Four years later, he was elected to Congress and spent 32 years there. His son, William Lacy Clay Jr., succeeded him in 2000 and has been there since.
There was progress. But it didn’t transform St. Louis.
Because of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many of the more egregious manifestations of racism have been mitigated. They have not all been erased, no matter what the U.S. Supreme Court suggested last year when it struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act.
Until an unarmed 18-year-old man, Michael Brown, was shot dead by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson a week ago Saturday, St. Louis has enjoyed, if that’s the right word, 50 years of racial peace and some important progress. Not enough, but some.
Fifty years is two generations. In most cases, two generations of whites enjoyed those years more than their blacks counterparts, who found fewer job opportunities, fewer good schools and fewer housing options. The reasons for that are many and complicated, but the least that can be said is that St. Louis didn’t often go out of its way to do much about it.
As our colleague Bill McClellan has observed, we are the descendants of those who stayed behind when bolder people opened the West. Complacency is in our marrow.
Now we’ve been called on it. Now we have been summoned to a generational change.
“Whenever there is a major event that is not positive, it always accelerates change.”
That’s what Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings told the Dallas Morning News last year as the city prepared to mark the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Fairly or not, Dallas became labeled “The City of Hate,” an image city fathers took pains to address. Still, the image persisted until the glory years of the Dallas Cowboys and an eponymous television soap opera.
In the nine years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the city has been rebuilt with billions of federal dollars. It is smaller by 100,000 residents, but a higher percentage of them are entrepreneurs. Today’s New Orleans has more knowledge-based industries, far better schools and a reputation among young people as a cool place to live.
The assassination of a president and a hurricane that killed nearly 1,000 people are entirely different generational events than what has gone on in Ferguson. We will not have Roger Staubach or J.R. Ewing to change our image, and in this day and age, the odds that St. Louis will get infusions of billions of federal dollars to address its mistakes are slim and none.
No, we’re going to have to do this ourselves.
Eventually the television cameras and news reporters left Dallas and New Orleans. They will leave St. Louis, too, along with the visiting civil rights firemen, the outside hell-raisers and the self-anointed experts. The ubiquitous #Ferguson hashtag will fade.
We will be left to work this out on our own, beginning with the judicial process, including a Justice Department investigation. What does it say about St. Louis that the Justice Department doesn’t even trust a medical examiner’s autopsy?
As the judicial process unfolds this fall, we’ll see Ferguson debated as part of the St. Louis County executive’s election. Ferguson could be, and should be, an object lesson in discussions about ending city-county fragmentation between now and 2016.
Would metro-wide government and policing have made a difference in how Ferguson was policed, before and after Michael Brown’s death? There’s no doubt about it.
This editorial page has proposed a gubernatorial Ferguson Commission to look at the events of last week and those that led up to it. We’ve proposed that St. Louis’s great universities study and make recommendations about a path forward. We believe greater educational opportunity is critical.
A generational event demands a generational response, a fundamental shift in the old way of doing things. You only get one shot at it. And you need to get it right.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.