Ferguson’s fruits of neglect

Monday, December 8, 2014

By H. Brandt Ayers

The Anniston Star, Ala.


     Nov. 30–After decades of neglect, of black and white leaders walking and talking past each other, Ferguson finally had its climax of flames and riot. Now — if it is smart — it has a chance for a meaningful denouement.

    That is the point in the narrative of a city where in Shakespeare, a shocking tragedy, the deaths of the young lovers Romeo and Juliet, awakens in the House of Montague and Capulet the terrible cost of enmity and separation.

     If Shakespeare had written a sequel to his tragic story, the bonding of the two houses would have been awkward and testy at first. That will surely be the experience of Ferguson as the two communities come together as strangers.

     But if the leaders of Ferguson are patient and forbearing, the bonding, event friendships, will develop out of a sense of mutual interests.

     This is not said idly, for it is the story of Anniston in the 1960s and early ’70s.

     On Mother’s Day in 1961, a Freedom Rider bus was assaulted and burned. In response, a white leader ran for City Council promising a biracial committee. He was elected and the committee eliminated racial signage and separate waiting rooms.

      But the struggle against resistance to racial comity required dogged effort. In 1965, the same year as “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, there was a Mother’s Day Ku Klux Klan march down the main downtown street, which was followed in July by “White Man’s Rallies” on the courthouse steps.

      The violence of the rallies’ rhetoric inflamed a group of white thugs, who fired deer slugs into an automobile filled with black workers ending their shift at a pipe plant, wounding the driver, Willie Brewster.

      As Brewster lay dying at a local hospital, a leading physician called me at the paper with an urgent message, “We’ve got to do something.” That evening at his house we raised a $20,000 reward, an enormous sum for the time.

      Importantly, each donor agreed to sign his or her name to a full-page advertisement in the Sunday paper. Approximately 300 well-known donors declared in the reward announcement, “We are determined that those who commit secret acts of violence will not control this community.”

      A skilled state investigator, Lt. Harry Sims, who identified and arrested the shooter, said it was the reward — not a stricken conscience — that persuaded one of the thugs to turn state’s evidence that resulted in a conviction.

     As rare as it was for an all-white jury to convict a white man for the murder of a black man, the struggle to create a united community was not over.

     Simmering beneath the surface was — and is today — a layer of distrust put there by the drastically different histories of blacks and whites. A spark can flare into a major incident.

     A minor incident at an unusually close-knit high school, which in 1971 was integrated by 225 “new” students, provided the spark. Shots were fired into the home of a civil rights leader and armed black men patrolled the neighborhood.

     In the midst of what could have been a Ferguson-level riot, or worse, an undisciplined police force staged a sit-down strike against a city manager who denied officers’ demands for shotguns and riot gear as inciting violence.

     State police came in, led by a seasoned office, Maj. Bill Jones, and restored order. Jones was persuaded to stay on as “police administrator:” his reforms created a trained and professional force.

     With calm restored, the community went about the business of building a structure, which reached deep in the leadership of both communities. The Committee of Unified Leadership met every Tuesday morning with the first order of business, “Are there any crisis problems?”

     This history is recited not in a boastful way but to indicate that a more unified community does not come quickly or easily, that it will not be aided by a national commission on police-community relations or on the demilitarization of police forces. It certainly will not come from street protests in Ferguson or other major American cities.

It will come from the good will and talents of local people in Ferguson.

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