The riot, which began after a white cop shot an unarmed black teenager, was in its second night.
I stood 20 feet or so from a line of protesters, who were all black, mainly young and male, and growing increasingly angry. I looked to my right. There, sitting on the back of a Jeep, a National Guardsman who looked to be a teenager himself had his finger on the trigger of a loaded and cocked .30 caliber machine gun. His weapon was pointed at the protesters. His eyes were wide with nervous tension.
One threatening move and men would die. I’ve seldom been so scared.
Somehow, the moment passed without bloodshed; but the hostility did not ease on either side of the racial line.
Ferguson 2014? No; this was Tampa, Fla., in the summer of 1967. It was one of many outbursts in a violent year in a troubled decade.
The current headline-grabbing eruption in a predominantly black St. Louis suburb reminded me of that hot summer and the one that followed. It should remind us all of how far we’ve come as a society in nearly half a century – and how far we have to go.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a good analysis Sunday, asking why Ferguson had exploded. The answers were predictable: Bad relations between police and citizenry, joblessness, crowded and rundown housing, poverty and a cohort of young men with not much hope and not much to lose.
That was almost exactly the situation then in Tampa. When I returned, almost a year later, to report a follow-up story, I found that there had been a lot of talk of change but little that had touched the lives of the most disaffected. What will Ferguson look like next summer?
After the Tampa riot and a bigger, bloodier one in Detroit, the Miami Herald, where I worked at the time, conducted a survey of Miami’s black residents. More presciently than we could know, we called it “our pre-riot survey.”
What we learned was pretty much what the Post-Dispatch reporters found in their unscientific survey of Ferguson. The powder was there, in the Liberty City and Overtown sections of Miami. All that was lacking was the spark.
That came in the summer of 1968, as the Republican national convention a few miles away on Miami Beach nominated Richard Nixon for president. A protest meeting drew an over-response from heavily armed police, and the powder ignited.
Summoned from Convention Hall, I found myself standing in another street, an angry crowd behind me, watching a white governor call futilely for calm and promise unconvincingly that grievances would be addressed.
Neither Claude Kirk in Miami nor Jay Nixon, in Ferguson, had enough credibility to quiet the protests or deter the looters.
We knew then, as we know now, many of the root causes of urban unrest. We knew then, as we know now, that there is always a criminal element ready to use legitimate protest as an excuse to loot, burn and shoot. We knew then, as we know now, that white people in general have much more trust and confidence in police than black people do.
I can’t help wondering what would have happened if we had moved as effectively to address the causes of unrest as we have moved to equip our police with armored personnel carriers and heavy weapons.
Martin Chambers was 19 when a Tampa officer named James Calvert shot him in the back. Michael Brown was 18 when Ferguson officer Darren Wilson shot him six times. Both were suspected of minor crimes. Neither was armed.
Two deaths 47 years apart have triggered disturbingly similar reactions. We humans pride ourselves on being able to learn from experience. The evidence unfolding in Ferguson makes me wonder about that.
Remember Rodney King? He was the black man whose brutal beating at the hands of Los Angeles police led to another riot in 1992 when a jury acquitted the assaulters. He famously asked the plaintive question: “Can we all get along?”
Even today, the only honest answer seems to be “Not yet.”
George Kennedy is a former managing editor for the Missourian. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.