By the time my maternal grandparents arrived in 1932, my father’s family had already been in St. Louis some 35 years. Like those who migrated north, both before and after them, they found a city burgeoning with commerce, replete with manufacturing jobs, economic opportunities previously unknown to them. But they also found a city in turmoil, an increasingly diverse tapestry of settlers and immigrants in the midst of reconciling itself to its changing identity.
In 1917, there had been labor riots fueled by racial tensions just across the Mississippi River in neighboring East St. Louis, Illinois—a boomtown known for its cheap coal, slaughterhouses and aluminum production. With African Americans landing jobs with companies like American Steel and Aluminum Ore, job and wage security as well as rumors of race-mixing set off nearly two months of violence. That bloodstained offensive on black newcomers still stands as one of the worst this country has ever known. The NAACP estimated that some two hundred black people were left dead and another six thousand burned out of their homes. White residents fled in droves over the next 30-40 years, sequestering themselves in “sundown” towns.
Detailed in Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities, the tiny township where I spent many of my early years and carefree summers, never recovered economically and now many of its social structures and public institutions lay in ruins. It was once said that if you cannot find a job in East St. Louis, you cannot find a job anywhere. Today, with an ever-shrinking population of around 27,000, East St. Louis is 98% black and is marred by environmental degradation, violent crime and pervasive poverty—among the highest rates in the country.
The same tragic story of a black-white divide unfolded in a remarkably similar fashion across and beyond the Poplar Street Bridge that connects the St. Louis metropolitan area.
Until the early 1970s, restrictive housing covenants were widespread. There were neighborhoods—whether codified in law or in practice—where blacks were not allowed to live, work or socialize after dusk for fear of arrest or worse. The wrought-iron gates still standing in the Central West End are painful reminders of those bygone years. Some of those boundaries included entire cities and townships. White St. Louisans—including first and second generation Italian, German, Polish and Irish immigrants, carved out sections of the city for themselves, away for the rush of black immigrants who hailed from the rural south.
Until he died in1943, my maternal grandfather Josup—a former minstrel show performer and gravedigger from Huntsville, MS– worked in a coal refinery. My uncle Jimmy swept floors at an automotive plant. Uncle Ross was a doorman and pumped gas at a full-service station near Forest Park for 30 years. His wife, my aunt Gerry, was a line cook at a country club. There were few jobs they could have and even fewer places they could live. Back then, there were only two colored high schools—Vashon and Sumner.
Separate and unequal, long thought to be a relic of the old south, was alive and well in St. Louis. Jim Crow, it seemed, had cousins up north. It was nothing short of an American apartheid.
In time, discriminatory race-based laws were dropped from the books only to be replaced by a new, a tragically flawed social contract—its defining geographical lines shifting and moving in tandem with black economic progress. That evolving social contract, despite the eradication of Jim Crow-inspired sundown laws, was imbued with self-segregation and remains one of the most divided big cities in the nation, according to a study conducted by Brown University. Driven by both white fear and black economic flight, metropolitan St. Louis expanded to encompass farmland redeveloped into affluent suburbs—many areas of which remain 97% white. Today, there remains marked self-segregation even within the city limits.
It has been said that the civil rights movement skipped St. Louis. How civil your rights were depended largely on the money in your pocket. African Americans who were able to build pathways to financial success relocated to close-in suburbs–as my mother did when she moved my siblings and me from an East St. Louis housing project to a small rented house in all-white St. Ann, Missouri in 1974, the year after my father was murdered, and enrolled us in the Ritenour school district. We returned to East St. Louis for a time, before living in Ferguson where I attended once all-white Normandy High School—the same school Michael Brown graduated from just a few months ago. Many left the city altogether, as we later did, leaving behind a gully of poverty in its core.
However, as the availability of affordable housing and meaningful jobs grew, that line began to stretch further into north St. Louis County. A drive along Martin Luther King Drive, which turns into St. Charles Rock Road at the city limits, tells the story of another Great Migration. The numbers were marginal at first, then more pronounced. St. Louis County is now 24% black. Still, a sense of calm persisted.
And, until now, that paper-thin social contract—rife with social injustice—held that peace.
For too many, including my family, that meant living in silence with the realities of over-policing, racial profiling and red-lining, never really mounting a fight against the confines of social and economic injustice with any fervor. It meant never seeing the ballot box as a meaningful mechanism for substantive change. Until Ferguson, there were few if any national human rights leaders focused squarely on St. Louis, organizing and agitating for change.
Until now, there was no Justice Department investigation into the discriminatory practices employed by the St. Louis County police department or any of the 90 related jurisdictions for that matter. There was no effort to recall a local mayor or demand the firing of his police chief, and very few challenges to a county prosecutor who has held office for over 20 years. There were no feet on the street and certainly no media presence. Visiting journalists, including several of my colleagues got a taste of what it is like to defy—even if passively– local police.
When I first picked up reports from social media about a “police-involved shooting” and began tweeting witnesses for details even as Brown lay dead and uncovered in the street, few had ever heard of Ferguson. I sent the first of several “hot notes” to my producers at MSNBC around 5:30pm that Saturday, just after the close news programming. They responded immediately, adding other producers, editors and reporters to the e-mail string. Soon media from around the globe descended on St. Louis.
No one was watching, until now.
The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown has ripped proverbial scabs off of a myriad of festering sores. While the facts of the case deserve unbiased and transparent investigative scrutiny and all the rigorous questioning that can be mustered in the confines of a courtroom, what is happening in my hometown is larger than that and reaches back and through a troubled history that began to unfold long before he was born. To witness and participate in collective acts sparked by Brown’s death, in St. Louis, on social media and around the country is as much about his life before his was shot six times and left lying in the street as it is about how politicians and law enforcement—from the White House to Jefferson City to Ferguson City Hall– have responded. It spans well beyond what police have deemed a “clean shoot” and the many ways they have sought to sway public opinion. There can be no perfect martyr in our quest for justice and we should not ask that of Brown.
We are only beginning to piece together what happened on Canfield Drive. The questions are many and we deserve answers to all of them. That is justice.
But, what you believe about a story is defined largely by when and how you believe it begins. And, for me, to unravel this piece of that history is to offer a spate of context. As I watch thousands of peaceful protestors, the rage of those few who have engaged in violence, and even how local law enforcement sought to address both—too often as one and the same– I see it through a cultural lens, as we all do. Mine was shaped and formed by my life in St. Louis, by the lives of my father and brothers—all lost on the streets of the city I love—and by the future I want to embrace for my sons and daughters.
“Let us keep the issues where they are,” Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. said so eloquently from the pulpit of Mason Temple the night before his assassination. “The issue is injustice.”