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 forty-three 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 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 8 ½ 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 for years in the Civil Rights movement) that change will not come just because there has been a tragedy. National TV cameras had left Detroit. 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 to be 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?” He empathized how hard it is to understand, and quoted Phil 4:7, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” 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.
I watched the service via live streaming video. Held at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis which seats 2,500 with 2000 overflow, I heard the powerful Gospel music. Nurses in white lined the center aisle.
The Rev. Michael Jones welcomed everyone to the “Life celebration.” He said that the church is a place of peace and refuge because of the Prince of Peace. The Old Testament lesson was Psalm 27 read with fervor, “When evildoers assail me . . .” (v. 2) and the powerful beginning, “The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear?” Another person read from the New Testament, Romans 8:28-39. I love that text, especially, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, not things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(vs. 37-39)
Activists, hundreds of members of the Ferguson community, large numbers of the extended family sat and stood and clapped (some more loudly than others or course—not all black churches are alike). Jesse Jackson was there as were Martin Luther King III and his sister Rev. Bernice King, along with quite a few members of Congress. Two and a half hours later, more people could have spoken, but it was time to go. We had been to Church together. The funeral procession left for St. Peter’s Cemetery.