The funeral service for Michael Brown, filled with music, celebration, and challenge, is over. There's other news: the earthquake in Northern California, ISIS. The cameras move on. The Time magazine cover this week: "The Tragedy of Ferguson."
The New York Times magazine cover June 29, 1990, was "The Tragedy of Detroit." Same phrase 24 years ago. That cover was 23 years after the 1967 Detroit "riots." That's 47 years. The Rev. Al Sharpton ended his words at Mike Brown's funeral with, "We are required in his name to change the country." Will we?
In Detroit 1967, 43 people were killed in the streets, most of them blacks gunned down by police or the National Guard. Eventually President Johnson sent in 4,700 federal troops. Afterwards "For Sale" signs sprang up in white neighborhoods. Developers built shopping malls beyond Eight Mile and a mass exodus began. The story of Detroit is a long and lingering one. Then it was white suburbs vs. a black city. There have been racial tensions in St. Louis for just as many years. But this time, St. Louis County particularly North County, has grown more black while whites move further out to the exurbs. One quote from the 1990 article by then black Mayor Coleman Young, echoes today: "White people find it extremely hard to live in a neighborhood they don't control."
Why do I contrast these two cities, when I could draw incidents from dozens of others? Why do I have a 1990 magazine? Because I and my family lived in Detroit in the summer of 1967 and because I lived in St. Louis before that.
I was serving a church in St. Louis Hills, just inside the south county line; my husband served a congregation in North St. Louis. We went back and forth. I got into trouble in my all-white congregation, when I marched in solidarity and protest in the streets of St. Louis after the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four Sunday School girls. My picture just happened to appear on TV. About me, congregation members said, "She's very nice. It's just that she has this problem: she likes Negroes."
Four years later, living and serving in Detroit, I was eight and a half months pregnant when in July, 1967, we saw the smoke begin to rise. Later that night, while hearing "This Land is My Land; This Land is Your Land" play on TV, the trailer across the bottom said "Curfew. Everyone must be off the streets." Well, people did not leave the streets. The city burned, night after night. The police and military guns were protecting major stores and aimed at us, the inner city residents. I was young, then, but I remember the moment it became so clear (even after working in the Civil Rights movement) that change will not come just because there has been a tragedy. National TV cameras had left Detroit when President Lyndon Johnson came on TV and said that things were calm now and, "The troops are gone." The troops were not gone.
After that everyone had more guns. In 1992, after the Rodney King beating in LA, over 2,300 people were injured.
Guns and more guns. We had hoped the tragedy of Sandy Hook would change things.
Cameras will leave Ferguson for now. But we dare not forget yesterday's headlines. (Just where have the child immigrants at our southern border gone in the past few weeks?)
And we need to do more than remember headlines, lest names change but headlines be merely repeated. Systematic problems can be addressed: community organizing, political engagement, voter registration, commitment to truly integrated public schools, facing the militarization of law enforcement.
At the funeral Michael Brown's name was recognized as being now known around the world with the potential for his young life becoming a turning point for change. A Church of God in Christ pastoral representative whose own son had been gunned down on the streets asked, "Will things ever get better? Will justice ever be achieved?" Including himself and his wife he said to the parents of Michael and the parents of Trayvon Martin, "You didn't choose to be part of this group, but we have a special calling, to be agents of change."
Last week Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson said, "When these days are over and Mike Brown's family is still weeping ... We need to thank Mike Brown for his life and we need to thank him for the change he's going to make that is going to make us better." The days ahead will be hard, very hard. We need to call for and work urgently towards justice, peace and reconciliation.
Oh, and the baby I was carrying in July 1967 in Detroit? He was born, but a few weeks late. His birth story goes, "He wasn't so sure he wanted to come into this world." For over 20 years he has been a public high school vocal music teacher, creating community among teenagers not only by singing together, but through listening to each others' stories, pain, and joy, in their own lives and internationally through global music.