It was early 1995. I had just moved to St. Louis from Miami to work at KMOX, and the Downtown Rotary Club had invited me to give a speech. It was a mistake they would not repeat.
I had been living in a corporate apartment in the Mansion House, watching ice-coated iron workers battle the February wind while finishing the roof of the Dome, anticipating a deal that would steal the Rams from Los Angeles and then allow them to move back two decades later thanks to a one-sided contract that read like it was drawn up by a graduate of Trump University law school.
My wife and stepdaughter had finally arrived, and we were getting ready to move into our new home. It was quite a feat, considering that we had dealt with a series of real estate agents who unerringly tried to steer us to someplace called Chesterfield, a collection of newer tract homes squatting on what had recently been woods or farmland. It quickly became clear that as white transplants, it was where they expected we would want to live.
We were unimpressed. Realtors seemed puzzled that we wanted a place with sidewalks. Sidewalks, I tried to explain, meant foot traffic, which meant neighbors walked and got to know each other, which meant a robust sense of community. One mystified real estate agent finally explained that in many of the neighborhoods we’d been shown, homeowners didn’t want sidewalks, since they didn’t want “outsiders” or “undesirables” walking around.
We finally found what we wanted, moved in, and quickly discovered that my bi-racial stepdaughter, who had been just another face in ethnically amorphous Miami, was being pressured by kids at school to pick whether she would hang out with black kids, or white kids. There was never any indication that hanging out with both was a possibility. This was St. Louis.
The cherry on the racist sundae was a discussion I had with the KMOX program director about a series of shows I had done on my program looking at the state of the St. Louis Public Schools. The station’s general manager would stalk through the station trailing a miasma of flatulence from his $600 suits, and the program director was generally right there in the slipstream, hanging on like the slug-like pet perched on Jabba the Hutt’s shoulder.
The program director acidly told me that the station’s audience didn’t care about city schools, since research showed most of the audience was in St. Charles County, and that was the sweet spot we should aim for. I was amazed at how often the man could use the n-word without ever actually saying it.
So by the time the Rotary Club speech rolled around, I was fed up enough to open it with the Bill Russell anecdote, how when he was set to be the number two NBA draft choice in 1956, and the St. Louis Hawks had their eyes on him, Russell told anyone who would listen that he would walk away from the game rather than play in St. Louis because of all the bigots who lived here. Russell ended up with the Celtics and the Hall of Fame, and the Hawks ended up in Atlanta.
I told the audience I knew about that, and also knew that the House Assassinations Committee in 1978 had concluded that the plot to murder Martin Luther King Jr. was hatched in St. Louis by a white supremacist lawyer who spread the word around the Grapevine Tavern on Arsenal, a hole in the wall owned by John Ray. John’s brother, James Earl Ray, heard about the reward being offered to kill Dr. King and broke out of the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City inside a laundry truck in 1967 to do the deed and collect the cash. At least that’s what the House committee concluded.
Anyway, I told the Rotarians that I had been sure that those were past anomalies that surely couldn’t represent the 1995 state of St. Louis. I was wrong, I said, and had to conclude that St. Louis was the most racist place I had ever lived. I tried to take the edge off by noting that that conclusion was possible only because I’d never lived in Boston. It didn’t help.
The various mid-level civic worthies kept impressing upon me that everything was fine, that there was nothing to see here, and that St. Louis was a great city anchored by corporations headquartered here, like TWA, Anheuser-Busch, and Monsanto.
TWA is dead and A-B and Monsanto are now both owned by international conglomerates, the Dome is home to monster truck rallies, and KMOX is just another radio station in the universe of angry white right-wing radio stations, but St. Louis’s denial that anything’s wrong remains as much of a tradition as sledding on Art Hill.
Ferguson lanced the region’s racist boil for the entire world to see. The city’s poised to drop below 300,000 people in the 2020 Census, the first time the city’s been that small since 1864. The county continues to bleed off population slowly. The city police department has become the law enforcement equivalent of a Superfund dump site. Eighty-nine towns in the county snipe at the city and each other like a target game at a neighborhood fair. Violent crime and murder rates keep accelerating, mostly thanks to a state that regulates firearms the same way it regulates candy bars—not at all.
But a lot of puffed-up St. Louis residents think everything’s fine. Unifying the city and county is bad, paying attention to police scandals is a waste of time, attacking racism is unnecessary, and focusing on inequality is just stirring the pot, all because everything’s fine.
Just like it was in 1956 and 1967 and 1995.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.