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The Fire This Time: Missouri Is America

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Missouri Is America

Missouri is America, and like the nation itself, both racial strife and promise, are part of its enduring legacy. Long before black teenager Michael Brown, died tragically in a hail of police bullets, the dramatic epicenter of America's racial fault lines often emerged in Missouri. For our nation's African-American community in particular, Missouri, has been a state of stark, often heartbreaking contrasts, where bold aspirations had to compete with debilitating painful losses, and occasional federal intervention. Prominent African-American lives with Missouri connections reflect those enduring contrasts of aspiration, and heartbreak: poet Maya Angelou, actress Josephine Baker, scientist George Washington Carver, were all born there, and Dred Scott, a life-long slave, found his final resting place as a free man there as well.

Ironically, today, tipsy Missouri is also the population fulcrum of the United States, where the nation would balance perfectly if the weight of each American were equally represented. Following Brown's death, America's clash over unequal representation nationally, has erupted locally in Ferguson, a city 70 percent African-American, where 50 of 53 of the police officers and most elected officials are white. St. Louis County, which excludes its namesake city, like many in America, became an amalgam of autonomous jurisdictions, where race often gerrymandered municipal and neighborhood boundaries.

One Man's Struggle For Freedom
Racial divides defined the state's founding and early history. The Missouri Compromise, which was later repealed, allowed the state's creation as a slave state, and Maine as a free one. Fugitive slave laws empowered by the Constitution mandated the return of escaped slaves to their masters even if they fled to free states.

Nonetheless, in 1846 an illiterate slave named Dred Scott, boldly sued for his freedom in St. Louis courts as some had previously emancipated other slaves. After many lengthy delays, the State Supreme Court as well as a federal court denied his claim that his travels to the free state of Illinois with his master, made him a free man. In 1857 the United States Supreme Court, in Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393, by a 7-2 vote denied Scott's claim as well. The Court ruled that Congress could not regulate slavery under the already repealed Missouri Compromise. Further, they found African-Americans were "inferior" beings who had no rights that the white man was bound to respect, and thus were not entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizenship. The children of Scott's initial owner purchased Scott and his family and immediately freed them, nine months prior to his death. Scott's final resting place in Calvary Cemetery in St. Louis is a short drive from Ferguson.

Beyond The Civil War
The decision catapulted the nation into a civil war, with Missouri being nominally a Union state, despite having a slave supporting governor, and few slave owners. Union troops violently battled Missouri militia under the leadership of Confederate sympathizing commanders during the War. Following the Civil War, the 13th and 14th Amendments abolished slavery, and promised citizenship and equal protection for all America's citizens irrespective of race. In response to violent racial attacks by the Klan and others new laws were passed to protect newly freed slaves.

Missouri native Mark Twain's controversial use of racial epithets and stereotypes in 1884's fictional novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to explore race and other issues in his home and neighboring states, remain a source of both analysis and conflict to this day.

In 1931, the lynching of African-American defendant Raymond Gunn, who was burned to death after being accused of killing a white school teacher in Marysville became national news. Thousands gathered to watch and some took souvenirs from the scene. The event renewed calls for federal anti-lynching legislation that never passed.

Missouri's deprivation of the educational rights of its black citizens resulted in the first major case to crack the stranglehold of Plessy v. Ferguson's approbation of separate, but "equal" segregation of America's black citizens. While not overruling Plessy, in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337 (1938), the Supreme Court voted 6-2, that Missouri denied equal protection of the laws to Lloyd Gaines, when it refused his admission to a state law school, despite its willingness to pay his tuition for law school in a neighboring state. Sadly, Gaines disappeared before he could attend and the case has never been solved. In 1947, President Harry Truman, a former Klansman and Independence, Missouri native banned segregation in America's military.

In 1948, the United States Supreme Court overturned a Missouri Supreme Court ruling that allowed the enforcement of racially restrictive covenants in housing deeds to prevent sales of homes to people of certain races. In Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948), the Court held that enforcement of a deed banning the sale of a St. Louis home to "people of the Negro or Asian race," against an African-American purchaser violated the
equal protection of the laws.

Racially Motivated Violence And Hate Groups
The racially motivated killing of musician Steve Harvey in a Kansas City, Missouri park in 1980 led to calls for a federal prosecution. Justice Department lawyers in Washington did not believe they could intercede because of legal restrictions. Alvin Sykes, a friend of Harvey, who grew up in poverty without receiving a high school diploma, thought otherwise. After countless hours researching federal statutes and court cases at a local library, he devised a legal strategy that was embraced by federal prosecutors who won a conviction against Harvey's killers. Sykes later sought justice for those killed in uncompleted cases from the Civil Rights Era, including the case of slain teen Emmitt Till, who was related to Harvey's widow. Sykes became the driving force in the passage of federal legislation named after Till to devote resources to that cause.

Last year, neo-Nazi serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin, who murdered African-Americans across the country and severely injured civil rights leader Vernon Jordan, was executed in Missouri for murdering a father in 1977 outside a St. Louis synagogue. A racist compound in Southern Missouri called the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord was connected to numerous crimes in the 1980s including the killing of state troopers in Missouri and Arkansas, a bombing, and assassination plots. In the 1990s the Missouri Ku Klux Klan won a Supreme Court case entitling it to join the state's anti-litter adopt a highway program. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center Missouri has 23 hate groups; more than Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina; but less than New York, California and Florida. The state reported 106 hate crimes in 2012, with African-Americans being the single most numerous target.

Race And The Law
From a legal standpoint, neither race, nor history has a bearing on the application of either the federal or state laws that could be used in any possible prosecution of Darren Wilson, the decorated white officer who shot Michael Brown. Neither state homicide laws, nor the post Civil War era federal civil rights law used against police for excessive force require a showing of racial animus, and nothing has surfaced publicly to suggest that that the officer has expressed prejudiced opinions. The case, however, has become a lightening rod for a state and community that is affected by a history of racial division that continues to this day.

Contrasting Prosecutors
The prosecutors, themselves, represent different racial experiences. The local prosecutor, whose police officer father was killed by a black assailant when he was 12, has never brought a brutality case involving a black victim and has faced calls for recusal from the case by area elected officials including the County Executive and a congressman. Bob McCullough nonetheless says he will present the case to a grand jury "objectively and fairly."

Attorney General Eric Holder, the first African-American to hold that office has aggressively addressed racial disparities with respect to voting rights and sentencing. His sister-in-law was blocked by Alabama Governor George Wallace from attending the University of Alabama in violation of a federal court order. He visits Ferguson Wednesday.

Calls To Action Must Also Pass The Test Of Time
With such a painful history and contemporary mistrust few could blame those who call for more immediate decisive action. The recurring killings of African-American citizens by law enforcement over many, many years, and the continuing disparate treatment they receive within the criminal justice system, is a stain upon the ideals of our nation. However, our society is best served, as well as the rights of all, including the officer, by a methodical and transparent process where speed, when necessary, must yield to truth-seeking. The enduring legacy to this tragedy should be two-fold, an objective deliberative investigation driven by stated facts and a prosecutorial decision based upon them. Second, a real long-term commitment to racial equality in this nation, where empathy and communication transforms into restorative action.

Tomorrow's Legacy And The Lessons Of The Past
Let this tragedy's legacy be one that was outlined by another Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy, who on the evening of the murder of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, brought calm to the streets of Indianapolis, two months before his own tragic killing:

For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man....

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

Amen.