Is Ferguson, Missouri Today’s Selma?

Since the death of Michael Brown by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson on August 19, another African American man, Kajieme Powell, was killed by Ferguson police only days later. This time the alleged crime was stealing juice and pastries from a convenience store. Powell, described by police officers and witnesses as brandishing a knife and behaving erratically, was shot by police and died at the scene. Powell was not holding a firearm and yet his behavior was enough to make two police officers, with loaded guns, believe their lives were threatened.

Before Michael Brown’s death, Americans were largely unaware of Ferguson’s past racial conflicts. That past is coming into sharp focus thanks to increased scrutiny and new, alleged instances of police brutality against African Americans by some members of the Ferguson police force. Combined, the appearance of a pattern of consistent use of deadly force to subdue African American suspects—even aiming firearms at a middle-class mom with screaming children in tow in response to a routine traffic stop—has caused leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus and others to insist on federal oversight of Ferguson’s police force.

A look back at Ferguson’s law enforcement legacy suggests such scrutiny is warranted.

In a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tim O’Neil documents Ferguson’s civil rights record in the 1960s. “The city’s roughly 150,000 black residents were crowded into 600 blocks, mostly from downtown west to Kings Highway, and from Delmar Boulevard north to St. Louis Avenue.” The story is supported by timeworn photos of 1960s civil rights protests, anti-Jim Crow rallies and other acts of civil disobedience.

In 1942, on the verge of World War II, Frank B. Wilson, an instructor at Booker T. Washington Technical, the city’s vocational high school for blacks, wrote this in an op-ed in the Post-Dispatch, “We’d like to help win the war because we are Americans too. We can’t fight, but we can work. Who’ll give us the chance?”  Weeks later, Wilson’s op-ed sparked a rally where more than 9,000 people showed up demanding jobs for blacks at defense plants.

Last week, Michael Brown’s stepmother, Cal Brown, said in the weeks before he died, Michael Brown talked about death. “I’ve been dreaming of death… seeing pictures of bloody sheets hanging on clotheslines. That touched me.  That’s what it was like when he was laying there on the street. He prophesized his own death.” Brown added that when her stepson celebrated his high school graduation last summer, he wanted the world to know who he was.  “We took him out to lunch after graduation and he was talking about God.  And he said, ‘someday the world is going to know my name.’”

Michael Brown’s death, and others since then, may be the final straw that will spark change in law enforcement practices and racial profiling—perhaps on a level comparable to new civil rights laws adopted after the bloody conflict in Selma, Alabama.  In 1963, two youth activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Bernard and Colia Lafayette, were targeted and beaten by the Ku Klux Klan for exercising their right to vote. That action, coupled with the skilled and passionate leadership of SNCC Chairman John Lewis and others, marked the beginning of a sea change in the hearts and minds of Americans that ultimately led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are working to force systemic change with respect to how police officers engage with African American suspects while also calling for greater oversight of the ongoing investigation into Michael Brown’s death.

Last week,  CBC members sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to seek changes to local law enforcement practices that would “prevent more Fergusons…Investigations into the Ferguson shooting are ongoing and many of the specific facts remain unclear…However, the pattern is too obvious to be a coincidence and too frequent to be a mistake.” CBC members urged the President to appoint a federal czar, based in the Justice Department, who would be tasked with ensuring compliance with federal law and the enforcement of civil rights laws.

Today, because African Americans and others of good will are daring to demand an end to racial profiling and equal treatment under the law, it’s fair to say that the demands for justice will ensure that Michael Brown’s life and legacy will not be forgotten.

Ferguson may well turn out to be the millennial generation’s Selma.

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