How do you reconcile what is happening in Ferguson, MO with the fact that it is 2014 and not 1963 in Birmingham, AL? Or Shelby, NC?
On August 9, 2014, at approximately noon,after a confrontation and possibly an altercation, a white police officer, Darren Wilson fired his gun six times and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, MO, a predominantly black suburb of St. Louis. Beyond these accepted facts, there is nothing but looting, protests, teargas, rubber bullets, camouflage gear, Kevlar vests and helmets, armored, IED mine-resistant military vehicles, assault rifles, sharp-shooters with mounted automatic weapons, and lots of confusion. I’m just waiting for the water-canons and attack dogs to arrive from the Birmingham Police Department.
But this is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a horrendous situation involving initially peaceful protests that have devolved into violent and hateful confrontations between looters, angry protesters, members of the press, local, county, and state police, and the National Guard. Everyone and everybody has jumped into the public opinion circus ring: the coroner, the District Attorney, the Police Chief, State Police Captains, the Mayor, the Governor, the President, news outlets, pundits, reporters, the family and friends of the victim, and even the girlfriend of the “officer’s significant other”. Oh, and did I mention, Amnesty International arrived yesterday?
I think back to growing up in Shelby in the Sixties, a small, tightly knit, textile mill town in the Piedmont. It seemed almost everyone worked either for the Dover’s in one of their mills and lived in the Mill Villages, Fiber Industries, other small weaving, spinning, or dyeing mills, or PPG Industries with fiberglass. Both my Mom and my Dad worked, and worked hard with different shifts. I recall my Dad trying to keep me away from Mom during the days when she worked third shift, Mom taking her turn at the challenge for Dad to sleep as well.
Eventually, not sure whether from desperation or lack of sleep, or both, my parents got someone to care for me. My Mom eventually working “days” made this a necessity. In the south, in the Sixties, in a white household, that meant a black lady. Yes. That’s right. Think: “The Help.” Four boys, 3, 12, 16, and 17, with two, hourly wage earning parents, The first caregiver/sitter/cook/proxy-Mom I recall was Miss Betty. Her hallmark was to always, always wash me up good and put me in clean clothes before Mom came home. No exceptions. That cleanliness exercise in the afternoons, and the fact that she loved to snuggle me on her lap with her starched apron encompasses and completes “Miss Betty” for me.
My next black lady experience was with Eula Mae Black. No “Miss.” Just always Eula Mae. It was actually a package deal, or maybe a tag-team bout. Eula Mae would get dropped off early in the mornings by Aunt Josie in a huge, pink, four-door beast of a car–perhaps a Cadillac or a Buick. At some point during most days, Aunt Josie would swing back by. Sometimes all three of us would go to “town.” I remember great shopping trips to Rose’s or Woolworth’s 5 & 10. Ham biscuits at the lunch counter, served by other equally loving, smiling black ladies, with aprons, of course.
Sometimes my excursions included cleaning up churches on Monday’s I presume, after Sunday services. That was probably, actually my first “job.” Aunt Josie would assign me the job of going up and down every pew, picking up the discarded church bulletins. I would stack them, align them, and pretend to count them. Then, I would turn in my harvest to one of them after they finished dusting. They never let me use that great-smelling furniture oil, but I recall the scent and the softness of their hands afterwards.
One other excursion I recall with great fondness was when I got to go to their house on the other side of town, past the hospital, down Grover Street into the colored side of town–as it was known. I had the most fun playing with all the kids that seemed to always pop up there. I loved it. Great memories. I played. I ate. I had friends.
Later, in 1966, as I started school I remember some black students in class, but they were always the smallest group, yet always at least one or two in every class. Oh, there were blacks at the school, but they were in the back of the kitchen, behind the serving line, or rolling about the halls with trash cans on wheels and long-headed dust mops. Evans and Ray, the janitors at my elementary school were somehow my friends–they surely must have known Aunt Josie and Eula Mae, and seen me playing there. As for my other black playmates, I now realize their absence was the result of segregation. And their slowly increasing presence was the result of court cases and judicial decisions that lead to the desegregation of public schools. As I reflect now, I am not certain North Carolina was really working “with all deliberate speed” to bring those black playmates into Graham Elementary School. I never started to see any of those kids I played with at Aunt Josie’s until I was a high school student.
Fortunately, I never remember Shelby using dogs and fire hoses to deal with desegregation. There were no armored vehicles, assault rifles, or tear gas. There was certainly tension, and leaders from both the white and black community seemed like they were working on it. Rev Sam Raper, a prominent black preacher was always trying to bring folks together. One of our mayors, Les Roark worked tirelessly with Rev. Sam, and a host of other players to keep things from boiling over in Shelby. They appointed me to serve on the city’s Human Relations Council, and later, a Youth Council. I imagine the purpose was to open dialogue between blacks and whites, including youth.
Admittedly, Shelby had significant racial issues seething just below the surface during its history, up through the present. It was home to a large Ku Klux Klan group. It was where Thomas Dixon, the writer of The Birth of a Nation, and its controversial film, as well as other unabashedly racist novels, operated at the beginning of the 20th Century. The KKK has been recruiting in Shelby as recently as the Spring of 2013. I don’t pretend to ignore or gloss over these issues. If Birmingham was the front lines in the early Sixties, and other places in the South saw significant battles for desegregation, I believe that Shelby was somewhere along the supply lines in this war, perhaps operating as the complete opposite of the Underground Resistance of WWII. These movements to resist integration and equality, hidden in plain sight, continued to supply the opponents with warmth, succor, and leaflets, along with legislation.
As someone who grew up in this environment, and came of age there, how do I reconcile my thoughts and feelings about Ferguson, MO as the new front line? Haven’t we already fought these battles, fifty years ago? Why would someone sworn to uphold the law, to “Serve and Protect”, think it was acceptable to call blacks in Ferguson “f’***ing animals” and scream at everyone–blacks, whites, members of the press– with guns pointed directly, “I’ll kill you!” and “”Bring it, all you f***ing animals! Bring it!”
Regardless of what caused the initial response of the Ferguson police officer–we may never get all the facts about that situation–the reaction to the protesters has become totally out of proportion and scale. Militarized, heavily armored, and combat-armed police forces are not appropriate in THIS situation. Period. The response to the initial protest situation, and its needless escalation on both sides (looting, property damage, Molotov cocktails) of the line must be separated from the original action of the Ferguson police officer. The secondary issue, the response to the shooting, including the violence, looting, and military assault response, has taken over. We must deal with each issue separately and individually before it is too late.
What I really would like is to have a discussion with Mayor Les Roark, Rev. Sam Raper, and Aunt Josie. They could clean up this mess, and Miss Betty would have my face washed and put me in clean clothes before Mama Jewell finished her shift..