A long bike ride more than 40 years ago with childhood friends — from near downtown to the airport — was as close as I had come to this St. Louis suburb. Until Sunday.
For that summer adventure our folks chewed us out. I didn’t understand it then but I do now.
There have been too many tragic examples of unarmed black youths through no fault of their own attracting the wrong kind of attention from either the police or “concerned, law-abiding citizens.” The most recent example was Michael Brown, 18, who was shot Aug. 9 by 28-year-old Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson.
Before that the nation was stunned by the Feb. 26, 2012, Sanford, Fla., shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing.
Deeply entrenched, prejudice prompts people to see young black youths as suspects and rarely as just kids. Brown was walking in the street with a friend. Martin was returning from a store with a soft drink and Skittles. I was out with a half-dozen other black kids on a fun bike ride. But even as teens, we knew never to go into white St. Louis neighborhoods, and many of the white suburbs we rode through that day were out of bounds.
Our parents blew a gasket because they knew that once we were out of the black community, they couldn’t shield us from the racism, hatred and discrimination that they faced in America. They wanted us to enjoy our childhood as long as possible. When we integrated a white St. Louis high school in 1969, that protection ended. Then college and careers took us deeper into adult bigotry.
The boundaries have changed now. On Sunday, I saw mostly black people as I walked and drove the streets of Ferguson with my partner Bette. The Greater Grace Church, where a unity rally was held, overflowed with mostly African Americans. White flight and black mobility have transformed Ferguson from a place blacks almost always avoided to a city of 21,000 that is two-thirds black.
The demographic change reminds me of Hickman Mills in Kansas City. Only citywide programs and leaders promoting diversity in Kansas City helped residents embrace differences. At the church here, Bishop Larry Jones told attendees, “We live in a time when diversity is not always accepted, but it is important for us to always get along.” That is the ongoing struggle.
In Ferguson, whites have held on to power and jobs in government and law enforcement. Racial profiling remains a problem — a disproportionate number of blacks are stopped, searched and arrested. The details that led to Brown’s death won’t be known for weeks. But the investigation must be transparent, independent, fair and credible so that justice as the outcome will be accepted by all.
What’s clear is the people in Ferguson want life to improve and conditions to be better. Black employees on Sunday in some of the Ferguson businesses damaged by the unrest waited on customers. They need those jobs.
Schools need to reopen, and peace must return to this community. Troublemakers and others trying to profit from selling Michael Brown T-shirts and buttons need to leave. What also must go is the military state. Watching law enforcement officers suit up outside in military gear changed the mood of people we saw who were just out to peacefully protest for justice.
The 24-hour TV news cameras need to leave, too. They help fuel the unrest. Gov. Jay Nixon did the right thing appointing Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson to oversee security in Ferguson. He said at the church the cameras should televise blacks peacefully seeking justice.
Speakers said Brown’s death needs to serve as a defining moment in America, helping to lift the image of African American men and boys so everyone will help enable their academic and productive potential.
For that to happen, more walls must come down so parents won’t fear for the future of black males.