Reflections on Ferguson
I was 15 in the summer of 1962. I was spending the summer playing softball, rooting for the Cardinals, and thinking of my first year in high school at nearby McCluer High. Paul and I had been downtown to the fair, and were walking home down Florissant Rd. I was dressed in the white jeans popular at the time, along with a light blue shirt. We were walking and talking playfully. Life was good.
I was shocked when a police car pulled up and told me to get in the car. This was the first time in my life that a police officer had approached me. Paul kept walking, saying he’d see me later. I was taken by the police to a girl’s house, where she took one look at me and said, “That’s Ernie Lewis, that’s not him.” The police took me home, where I was met by my dad, who was furious with the police for having pulled me off the street. The police officer took no offense, and said good night. As it turned out, the girl had been raped, and I had been taken to a one-on-one show-up based upon the fact that I was walking at night dressed similarly to her rapist.
I have been thinking of that night in 1962 as I watched the outrage unfold this week in Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed Michael Brown was shot by the police, who then responded to community outrage with AK-47s, tear gas, rubber bullets, and armored vehicles.
You see, Florissant Road runs right through the middle of Ferguson, Missouri. Ferguson, and St. Louis for that matter, have always been troubled by race. My family moved to that small suburb in North St. Louis County in 1955 after my father was asked to start a church in a trailer there. My school served children from both Ferguson and Florissant. St. Louis itself is split in two. North St. Louis is mostly inhabited by African-American, most of whom moved to St. Louis to work in the auto factories in the 1950’s. South St. Louis is mostly white. Increasingly, St. Louis City is a dough-nut hole, a hollowed out poor city surrounded by wealthy suburbs.
Both St. Louis and Ferguson have shifted demographically from majority white to majority African-American since I left there in 1965 after graduating from high school. Efforts to unite city and county never succeeded, mostly out of racial animus and fear. St. Louis today is one of the most highly segregated cities in the country. When I left there, my high school was the biggest in the state due to the rapid white flight filling the suburban houses of Florissant. My school was almost all white when I was there. Kinloch was a town next door, with streets blocked off so that no one could drive from Ferguson into Kinloch. I could go on. Looking back I see now that even in 1962 race infused my school, my town, my city.
What I didn’t know then, but know now, is that the world was changing in 1962. The American apartheid was in the process of ending almost a century after the end of the Civil War. One year before, the Freedom Riders had been burned out of one bus, beaten in two cities, and ultimately imprisoned in Parchman Prison in Mississippi. The summer after I was stopped Medgar Evers was murdered in front of his home in Jackson, Mississippi, the March on Washington inspired the nation, and the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham was bombed and 4 little girls were murdered. The following year was Mississippi Summer, with the murders of Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner, killed while trying to register African-Americans to vote.
Ferguson continued to change after 1962. It changed demographically, shifting from all white to majority African-American. Its police force, however, remained virtually all white. More recently, they received grants allowing them to dress their officers like Special Forces in Iraq. They acquired armored vehicles. Somewhere along the line, their police became afraid of their citizens. And eventually, a young man with his arms raised in the air was gunned down and a community went up in flames.
I walked home one hot night in the summer of 1962 and was stopped by police. I was white in a white town. I knew little of life in the country around me. My life did not end that night. I was not wrongfully accused, much less shot with my arms in the air. My father was able to express his outrage to the police, who apologized rather than firing rubber bullets. I came away grateful that the process seemed to work for me.
Michael Brown too walked on the streets of Ferguson one hot summer day. He was stopped by white police officers and was shot to death in broad daylight with his hands allegedly in the air.
I am saddened by the young man that I was walking home at night so long ago. And I weep for the young man who never reached his grandmother’s house, and the community I left behind that failed to outgrow hatred and fear.