Events in Ferguson may have started with the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, a black man, at the hands of a Ferguson police officer, a white man, but John Wright believes there’s more to it.
“You never know what spark is going to ignite the incident,” he said. “I think Ferguson is a wake-up call to all of us. We can’t just keep going, business as usual in some areas, without having another explosion.”
Wright, who has written several books about African-Americans in St. Louis, said this was one of only a few racially charged events in the region’s history.
Shelley v. Kraemer
“So many people know about the main players in the fight for civil rights in this country, but what gets lost in the shuffle, especially behind milestone cases like this, is the humanity behind it,” Wright said.
In 1945, J.D. Shelley, a black teacher, moved his family from Mississippi to St. Louis. At the time, restrictive covenants prohibited blacks from living in certain areas. A conspiracy was launched and Shelley bought a house in a neighborhood with a restrictive covenant. A neighbor, Louis Kraemer, filed suit to keep the Shelleys from taking possession of the home.
The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 1948 justices ruled that restrictive covenants could be created, but they would not be supported by the courts.
Restrictive covenants were not limited to St. Louis. “It changed the housing patterns across America,” Wright said.
The public housing project, nine high-rise apartment buildings in all, was built in 1954: Pruitt was for black residents; Igoe was for white residents.
“It was supposed to be ideal housing,” Wright said. Within two decades, it was leveled.
Pruitt-Igoe’s failure is attributed to poor design, poor management, poor timing, overcrowding and crime.
“The thing I found interesting with public housing, if you were successful, you had to leave,” Wright said. “Which meant you never had a stable base. It’s almost saying ‘If you care, you gotta go.’ As a result, it collapsed.”
Jefferson Bank Demonstration
The summer of 1963, African-Americans launched a series of protests against the Jefferson Bank, which had only two black employees. These protests were different than those that took place in other cities. There were no riots; protesters peacefully demonstrated, blocking the bank’s entrance. Nineteen protesters were arrested; one of those protesters was then-Alderman William Clay, who would later be elected to Congress.
“We had national attention brought to St. Louis because of black unemployment, and we created situations where if we didn’t do certain things in this town, it cost money,” Wright said. “Money always brings about changes.”
After the protests, Jefferson Bank hired black people for white-collar jobs. So did other companies in the area.
Wright said he sees parallels between Jefferson Bank and Ferguson.
“We’ve got a warning now, another warning, that we’ve got some thing we have to do,” he said. “I think we’re on the brink of that same thing now. If we don’t make some changes, we’ll have more Fergusons.”
Ferguson, In Black And White
Following Brown’s death and protests in Ferguson, Wright said the community must act together.
“We had African-American ministers, community leaders,(they) stepped up and said ‘the looters don’t represent us,’ ” he said. “We need the white community to say ‘The bigots in the community don’t represent us.’ I think working together at that point, we can make a difference.”
What that difference is remains to be seen; calls for change and conversations haven’t yet been answered. Getting started isn’t the first obstacle, figuring out where to start is.
“It may start with my own family,” Wright said. “The hardest discussion may be talking with Mother or Father. We all have to realize it’s not a group. We’re all waiting for a savior, someone to come along, but it’s up to each individual, each of us as individuals, to carry the torch.”
Can individuals make a difference?
“It all depends on how serious we are,” Wright said. “If we really want change, change will take place. If we’re not serious, we’ll have another Ferguson. The threat of another Ferguson may move us forward.”
St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.