Acclaimed documentarian Louis Massiah arrived in St. Louis just as protests broke out over the acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley, and Massiah paid close attention. “St. Louis is the epicenter of the current civil rights struggle,” he said, adding that the level of consciousness he was seeing was extraordinary: “St. Louis is woke.”
His words were no surprise to Gwen Moore, curator of the reason for his guest lecture: the Missouri History Museum’s blockbuster exhibit #1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis. When she started researching the exhibit, people said to her, “We didn’t have a civil rights movement in St. Louis.”
She arched an eyebrow: “Oh, really?”
“People have actually told me, ‘Black people in St. Louis are passive,’” Moore says. “That’s not true. We forget our history—or we get disconnected from it.”
The first protest she curated into the exhibit was the one that Judge Nathan Young Jr. called the first civil rights protest on the continent: when free blacks and, as he called them, “white friends,” demonstrated on the steps of the Old Courthouse in 1819, protesting Missouri’s plan to enter the Union as a slave state.
Missouri was not deterred. But the protest may have opened a few eyes, because by the time Missouri joined the Union, a year later, the clause barring free blacks from entering the state had been removed from its constitution.
Right after the Civil War, black St. Louisans sued because they couldn’t ride inside trolley cars. “Even the president of the North Missouri Railroad thought it was wrong,” Moore says, reciting Isaac Sturgeon’s outraged remark: “I’ve seen females on cold days standing on the open platform with tender infants in their arms.” Two suits were filed, in 1867 and 1868, and both were successful. Meanwhile, “what these trolley car drivers tried to do was, rather than admit a black person onto that car, they would just pass them up,” Moore says. So Charlton Tandy, a black Civil War veteran who was organizing protests and boycotts, “would grab the reins of the horse. He would not let the trolley car move until black people could get on and sit where they chose.”
Asked whether the law was eventually changed, Moore says, “There wasn’t a law! That’s the interesting thing about Missouri. We really didn’t have those racially restrictive laws. We were segregated more by custom and tradition.”
Her other favorite protest story is about the Colored Clerks Circle. Because businesses were opening in black communities but refusing to hire black employees, Judge Young, who co-founded The St. Louis American, began a “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaign. He’d start with a conversation; one dairy company’s owner reportedly told him, “As long as cows give white milk, I will never hire a Negro.” But Young was able to get some jobs opened, in bakeries and driving those white-milk carts. Then the Colored Clerks Circle added direct action to the campaign, picketing Woolworth’s and other businesses.
In her new book Gateway to Equality: Black Women and the Struggle for Economic Justice in St. Louis, Keona Ervin writes about the 1933 nut pickers’ strike. The R.E. Funsten Company was paying white women four to six cents per pound to sort through the pecans and African-American women three or four cents per pound to shell them. More than 1,000 African-American women hit the streets. They won all their demands, essentially doubling their salaries and setting important precedents for the labor movement nationwide. The company promptly cut jobs in St. Louis; a year later, most of its local plants had moved south.
Black seamstresses marched down Washington Avenue in the Garment District strike that brought in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. (Strike leaders were not rehired.) Black women organized lunch counter sit-ins at the Scruggs, Vandevoort & Barney; Famous-Barr; and Stix, Baer & Fuller department stores. (They won the right to eat in the basement cafeteria—but not at the fancier lunch counters where they staged the protests.)
African-Americans’ push for job opportunities was complicated by the lack of options: A black man had nowhere to go to college in St. Louis until 1934, when Douglas University was founded. Six years later, Stowe Teachers College opened, giving black women a chance at two years of higher education.
In 1942, with the defense industry in high gear, black workers still weren’t being hired. A national march on D.C. was planned, and “St. Louis was the site of the most active protests,” Moore says. “About 9,000 people showed up at Kiel Auditorium for the kickoff. Of course, Franklin Roosevelt did not want these thousands and thousands of black people marching on D.C. protesting racism when we were supposed to be fighting a war against racism.” Roosevelt issued an executive order, and the march was called off—but not the movement.
St. Louisans staged their own march, from Tandy Park to Carter Carburetor, which didn’t have a single black employee in its workforce of 3,000. “They were able to get some black people hired,” says Moore. Another march targeted Southwestern Bell, which had no black telephone operators. The company agreed to hire black women but didn’t want them working alongside white women, Moore says. So they put the black operators in a separate office—in a separate building.
In the 1960s, the housing situation in the city drove more protests. “Racial segregation created artificial housing shortages for black people,” says Margaret Garb, professor of history at Washington University. “Property owners living outside the neighborhood realized they didn’t have to invest in upkeep, because African-Americans had to pay the rent, because they had to live in those neighborhoods.” Once housing deteriorated, it could be declared blighted and used for land clearance. “And then African-Americans get associated with falling property values and deteriorated housing, as if that’s caused by their race.” And that caused more white flight.
Garb’s colleague Garrett Albert Duncan is an associate professor of education and of African and African-American studies. “A lot of what we have in St. Louis is gentrified geography,” he says, “where black folks had their property stolen from them, and then other folks come in, sometimes unknowingly, and open up their businesses on stolen land—and they are not hiring people who look like me.”
Duncan is using present tense for a reason: It’s still happening. But when midcentury urban renewal programs displaced a lot of blacks, housing was still largely segregated and even minimum-wage jobs were scarce, so many families wound up in public housing. The St. Louis Housing Authority, burdened by construction debt for Pruitt-Igoe and rising utility costs, raised its rents until many tenants were paying more than half of their income to live in the projects. In 1969, tenants picketed, with women draping the welfare office door in black and declaring, “Motherhood is dead,” because they could not afford to feed and clothe their children. Waving signs with messages such as “Make the Roaches Pay Rent, Too,” picketers demanded more minimum-wage jobs, adequate welfare (Missouri wrote some of the most meager checks in the nation), and rent that was based on income. (A Monthly Labor Review from 1968 shows St. Louis with the highest nonwhite unemployment rate of the 20 metro areas listed). After nine tense months of stalemate, business, labor, and community leaders created a Civic Alliance for Housing and negotiated a strike settlement that helped residents of public housing nationwide.
The alliance collapsed two years later.
The game-changing protest came in 1963, when CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, held sit-ins in the lobby of Jefferson Bank & Trust. CORE’s St. Louis organizers had first written a letter, urging the bank to hire four black employees in clerical positions. (Of more than 5,000 workers in local banks at the time, only 277 were black—and 99 percent of them were doing menial jobs.) The response to the letter? That there were not “four blacks in the city” fit to do clerical work.
After seven months of protests, “the bank caved,” says Henry Berger, emeritus professor of history at Washington University, and hired black tellers. “Once the protesters won—and they won overwhelmingly—it put dents in the argument that ‘Well, it’s not that we’re discriminating; there just aren’t any qualified blacks.’” Other banks hired black tellers, and Anheuser-Busch and other St. Louis companies pried open their doors before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (The doors didn’t open wide, though: In 1970, A-B products were boycotted. “Drink something else,” the flyer urged. “Because only 2 percent of the Busch workforce in St. Louis is black, in a city whose black citizens make up 50 percent of the population.”)
There was a cost to the new civil-disobedience strategy used at Jefferson Bank: arrests, with bond set high; high fines; prison sentences for contempt of court; criticism from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat for using “an extortion tactic in the guise of racial equality.” Not all CORE members were up for more arrests. So the local group split, and Percy Green co-founded ACTION to continue trained nonviolent but deliberately annoying civil disobedience. Members drizzled sticky syrup on big companies’ carpets, stalled traffic, swung across a stage to pluck off the disguising headdress of the Veiled Prophet. A Maryknoll nun chained herself to the door of a department store to urge a boycott. When the Gateway Arch reached 300 feet and no black workers or contractors had been hired with the federal funding, Green and a white ally climbed halfway up in protest.
Blacks were hired.
Green, meanwhile, had lost his own job as a mechanic and lab tech at McDonnell Douglas. When the company refused to rehire him after layoffs, he sued, alleging racial discrimination, and his lawsuit reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices found unanimously in his favor, and McDonnell Douglas v. Green created a framework for proving discrimination in the workplace.
Over the next several decades, activists fought on several fronts at once: job opportunities, fair pay, housing, healthcare, and the fatal shooting of unarmed young black men. In 1989, 24-year-old Keith Turner was shot by a black police officer while sitting in a car in North St. Louis. The mobile reserve officer said he fired because he feared for his safety when a passenger in the backseat ducked down and then popped up and recalled that he fired at the man but accidentally hit Turner with the shotgun blast. The intended victim said he’d bent down to place a bottle of malt liquor on the floor of the car.
It’s hard to fully understand the black community’s pervasive distrust of police, says Wash. U. history professor Margaret Garb, until you remember that “there’s a history of black men at the end of Reconstruction knowing they had to keep a shotgun, because you didn’t know when a white mob was going to attack your home and attempt to lynch you. Blacks couldn’t safely call the police and get protection.”
A black-and-white 1942 photograph shows members of the St. Louis NAACP holding protest signs; one urges, “A jury trial for everybody.” A political flyer from 1968 shows a picket sign reading, “Police Brutality,” and urging, “Negroes, Don’t Be No Fool.”
Today, says Green, the only way to build trust would be to “see white police officers consistently being charged, indicted, convicted, and jailed” for killing unarmed black males. He’s been fighting police shootings for 50 years, he adds: “It used to be ‘fleeing suspects.’ Well, the Supreme Court found that was somewhat unjustified. Then the police decided to say the suspect turned and had what looked like a weapon.
“How would predominantly white communities respond if black police officers killed unarmed young white males?” Green asks. “Black males, in the eyes of this establishment, symbolize crime, so whatever hostility is done to black males is viewed as a remedy to reduce crimes.”
Police weren’t the only ones killing black males. In 1992, protesters marched from Williams Temple Church of God in Christ in the first of what would become annual anti-violence marches, organized by a woman who’d lost her 22-year-old son to street violence the year before.
Protests were small, various, and sporadic until the summer of 1999, when activists, clergy, and community leaders blocked I-70, shouting, “No justice, no peace!” The goal: highway construction contracts and jobs for African-Americans. (A 1995 study commissioned by the state of Missouri and conducted by an out-of-state consulting firm found that in the previous five years, African-Americans—which represented 13.9 percent of the available construction firms—had received 0.48 percent of the contract dollars.)
The highway shutdown was peaceful but obstructive, and 125 arrests were made. Within two weeks, there were voluntary agreements by I-70 contractors to increase minority participation, and a job training center was promised for North St. Louis.
The following summer, there was a march on the St. Louis County Justice Center in protest of the fatal shooting of Earl Murray and Ronald Beasley. Both were African-American; Murray was suspected of drug dealing, but Beasley was simply a passenger. Undercover narcotics officers said Murray spun his car’s tires in an effort to run them down, and they feared for their lives. A federal investigation later determined that Murray and Beasley were unarmed and that their car had not moved forward when the officers fired 21 shots. Still, the feds found the shootings justified because the officers had feared for their lives.
In 2001, a police officer fatally shot Torrence Mull, a 16-year-old African-American boy with a BB gun. Protesters marched to City Hall but were unable to meet with Mayor Francis Slay. (The officer wound up working for the Dallas Police Department.)
In 2007, the Clergy Coalition—a group of African-American ministers who had supported Slay’s run for mayor—was jolted into opposition by the firing of African-American Fire Chief Sherman George (over a decision that itself dealt with race). On Martin Luther King Day, a protester in a pointed white Klan hat stood near Slay, and a chant rose: “Slay must go!”—until George quieted the crowd.
On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown—unarmed, 18 years old, African-American—was fatally shot by an officer who claimed that he was in fear for his life. The protests were immediate and explosive, and they galvanized the nation.
Ten days later, police shot and killed Kajieme Powell, an African-American man who reportedly suffered from mental illness and was acting erratically. According to police, he advanced at them with a knife. Powell was 15 feet away when the first shot was fired.
Two months later, another African-American, 18-year-old VonDerrit Myers Jr., was shot by an off-duty police officer who was working a side security job. The officer said Myers and his friends started running as soon as they saw him, so he gave chase. (The officer resigned a year later after crashing his police vehicle into a car while off duty and testing positive for cocaine and alcohol.)
The protests continued.
In the Cold War era, there was a bit of “wind in the sails of U.S. protests,” says St. Louis native Gerald Horne, a distinguished historian who’s written extensively on the black liberation movement. “African and Caribbean nations were surging to independence, and Washington would have difficulty winning hearts and minds there as long as people of African descent in the U.S. were struggling.” Earlier, “there was enormous assistance from British abolitionists and from the independent government of Haiti.”
“Today, what’s missing is any sort of acknowledgment” of that global influence, he says. “To what extent are protesters reaching across the oceans? To Canada, to Mexico, to the European Union, the African Union, the Organization of American States, the United Nations, London? There are many governments on planet Earth that have a bone to pick with the 45th president of the United States of America. I think they would be quite pleased to have friends in the U.S. that they could work with.”
The irony is that social media would make that kind of international reach far easier. “Huey Newton said, ‘The revolution will not be televised,’” Garrett Albert Duncan notes. “He didn’t know it would be tweeted, Facebooked, and Instagrammed.” Communication is instant, and it circles the planet. “People have access to new ideas from around the globe and can address things in novel and effective ways.”
David Cunningham, professor of sociology at Washington University, adds another advantage of social media: “direct accountability for what’s happening.” All those cameras recording events follow the Heisenberg principle: They alter what’s occurring.
Green would’ve given anything for the internet half a century ago, when he was papering communities with flyers and calling up strangers on heavy rotary-dial landlines. “We could have had a lot more people supporting what we were doing,” he says, “and our statements not distorted by the news media. Now it’s all based upon what you put out there and how it is received—and you can’t have control over that, either. We are at the risk of the intellect of the people who are observing.”
Kira Hudson Banks, an associate professor of psychology at Saint Louis University, served as a racial equity consultant for the Ferguson Commission. Her title alone is significant: The very fact that the commission “was brave enough to name it ‘racial inequity,’” she says, “shaped a lot of what we’re seeing now. Poor people were subsidizing some of our municipalities—and black kids were disproportionately suspended—long before we had an ArchCity Defenders report. But the commission used data and storytelling and made people see in a way they hadn’t before.”
Now, Banks says, “it’s not the flat ‘I’m going to point a finger and say you’re a racist.’ It’s systemic. It’s the fact that our systems are working disparately by race. They are not working the same way for all people. Maternal health, infant mortality—those things should not be able to be disaggregated by race, so there’s something we are doing with our systems and our resources that is creating this disparity. It’s not ‘You made black babies die’; it’s ‘Oh my gosh, we have to figure out what we are doing.’”
On the police side, Banks isn’t sure as much was learned: “They haven’t realized that their need to control and defend—because they are defending against this larger narrative—oftentimes nothing is happening when they show that brute force. And they don’t realize how that has fueled people’s anger.”
In Ferguson, “there was no instruction book,” says activist Cori Bush. “We had no forewarning, no sit-down meeting. So when we went out, we just went out. We took a lot of heat for the things we allowed. But when you put a group of people from all different backgrounds together in a traumatic situation and then you tell them, ‘Make something happen,’ of course that’s not going to go textbook. We did not know how to go about reaching the powers that could give the family justice. And because we did not see justice, we kept going back day after day. We did what we thought we should do. And even though people say we didn’t do things right, we did affect the entire world.”
ArchCity Defenders and an array of legal co-counsel filed federal and state class actions against more than 30 municipalities to end illegal practices in local courts. The organization documented systemic abuses in Ferguson and filed a federal class action lawsuit for illegally jailing low-income and African-American people solely because of their poverty. The U.S. Department of Justice entered into a consent decree with Ferguson. The Missouri Supreme Court appointed a working group to study municipal groups. The Missouri Senate ordered the end to many unlawful practices in municipal courts.
“A conviction failed, but the larger issues did not,” says Henry Berger, who gives a large chunk of credit to “the intervention by the Department of Justice on behalf of traditional reform.” He pauses. “You are not going to have the Justice Department under this president come in here and coerce the city to make major changes.”
Three years after Michael Brown’s death, the Stockley verdict came down, and protests began again. Again a police officer had shot a black man. Again the facts were a blur, and the issues ran deeper.
Bush went back on the street. This time, things unfolded a little differently. The classic “No justice, no peace” message shifted fast to “No justice, no profits,” with protesters focusing on economics.
Bush is running for U.S. Representative Lacy Clay’s seat in Congress, so she was relieved to see some of her Democratic state party officials showing up at protests. In Ferguson, she says, “the media tried to put it out that it was “just a bunch of black people throwing rocks and burning buildings. The truth of the matter is, it turned into a coalition of all different kinds of people: black, white, brown, yellow—and now those numbers are bigger. I used to hear ‘We felt we weren’t wanted’ from whites. Now I have all these messages: ‘What can I do?’”
The generation gap’s gone, too. “In Ferguson, the older generation felt like ‘This is how you need to protest’—not being so angry and there being more order. The younger generation said, ‘We are angry. Don’t tell me I can’t yell or go in the street. Where were you before?’” This time, Bush says, everybody’s in the street. “I’m a pastor, and the first time, I often felt alone and ostracized. Well, they are out there now. After the interfaith prayer service, they marched down the street, in the street, in their robes, and through City Hall. That blew me away.”
In Ferguson, Bush says, the media tried to pick out leaders, even pointing to the national group Black Lives Matter. “Their feet were not on the ground,” she says. “That discredits the people that were out there 24 hours a day, finding money for people to get on the bus, finding money for people to eat. It was stressful. And then to have another group to claim your heartache? Black Lives Matter wasn’t local. They were manning that hashtag. So this time, we are making sure that we control our narrative. In Ferguson, we didn’t know that we needed to, and by the time we figured that out, the damage was done.”
Onlookers have criticized the protests as leaderless and lacking a unified message or concrete goals. “What they are really saying, whether they realize it or not, is that we do not have centralized leadership,” remarks Priscilla Dowden-White, associate professor of history at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “A gentleman at my church was very adamant, saying we have no leadership now and there’s no unity. But part of what he was identifying as unity was really control.” In the ’60s, protests were organized top-down, with leaders raised up high. “It’s that control that young people today are not having any part of. Our society has changed.”
Ferguson was leaderless because everything happened organically, Bush says. This time, it’s deliberate. “They can come for one or two or three of us, but the movement will go on. Our mission is not to become celebrities. Our mission is to save black lives.” The problems today are systemic, and a lot more complicated than “Hire four black clerks.” But as far as Bush is concerned, “Our message is stark clear: Y’all gonna stop killin’ us.”
What’s new about the Stockley protests, Dowden-White says, “is this forcing of an understanding that the rights of the individual, the rights of a citizen in this society, should not hinge on whether or not you perceive them as being a respectable person.” In the ’50s and into the ’60s, there was what’s been called “the politics of respectability.” “A young woman was tapped to be the person who would refuse to give up her seat on the bus, but they didn’t choose her,” Dowden-White says, “because she was a pregnant unwed mother. Rosa Parks’ image was flawless. They didn’t want anyone to be able to point to anything that could undermine the legitimacy of their demands. What young people are saying today is, it doesn’t matter what your personal life is. That is exactly what the Michael Brown case was about for these young people. They don’t care whether he was stealing or not. He did not deserve to be shot down.”
“This is not going away,” she continues. “These young people are not going to sit down. And the young whites who are out here in these streets protesting? That’s nothing new—there were whites in the ’50s and ’60s who lost their lives. But the young white people who are out there, just like the young black activists out here, they seem to be on the same page about the legitimacy of the rights of the individual. This is not just about black folks. This is about the heart of America, about who we really are. We are fighting for the soul of the nation.”
Feature photo of CORE’s strike against Jefferson Bank & Trust Company courtesy of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at University of Missouri-St. Louis.