The burial of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old black man shot and killed by a white cop in the St. Louis suburban community of Ferguson, Missouri, brought back too many memories Monday.
As a newspaperman in the St. Louis metro area for 12 years (1969-1981), I covered many stories of racial unrest in the area.
Amy was born in the predominantly black city of East St. Louis. She and her parents lived in nearby Belleville and watched as the city of East St. Louis descended into a hole of poverty, drugs and government support.
Racism illustrated, in many ways, the city of Alton, Illinois, where the paper I worked was defined by a pro-slavery mob that killed abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy and threw his press into the Mississippi River. A portion of that destroyed press sat in the entrance hall of The Telegraph.
Alton, just up the Mississippi from downtown St. Louis, was also the birthplace of James Earl Ray, the man convicted of assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis. When the East Alton courthouse was demolished in a replacement project, a young couple from that town purchased the jail cell there “because it was the first jail to house James Earl Ray.”
When racist whites discovered a black couple later lived in the home where Ray was born, the house was torched. No one ever went to jail for the offense.
At one point, while reporting on and photographing racial unrest in St. Louis, it occurred to me that witnessing the travesty of racism has been a constant in my life. When my mother remarried after my father died in an industrial accident we moved with his new husband to Farmville, Virginia — the county seat of Prince Edward County, which closed its schools rather than integrate and I, along with two step sisters and a step brother, attended an all-white private school funded largely by the county while black children went without a public education.
My first photograph for a newspaper — taken at age 11 — showed a nighttime meeting of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter in a remote field in Prince Edward County. I still remember the large burning cross and the flagrant expressions of hate from the rally’s speakers.
I shot that photo more than a half-century ago. Today, 55-years later, hate and racism still exist in this nation.
I’ve been around violence most of my life and most of it as a journalist who reports on crime and violent activity. I’ve witnessed more death than I can count and more than I can, or want to, remember.
That is continues to happen is even more disturbing.
(The video above was put together with some of my photos, some from Getty Images and historical footage of the struggle for equality. The song, Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” is sung by After Jack, a band from Ferrum.)