On August 9, 2014 lives were changed forever. From the loss of life from Michael Brown to the multitudes of lives that were affected in the St. Louis region and around the world, Ferguson (and Civil Rights) would never be viewed in the same light. In the months and years that followed, we all tried to collectively grasp in our minds how this tragedy could have happened. How could an 18-year-old young black male who seemed to beat all the odds to graduate from high school be killed in the same summer by a police officer in his own neighborhood? Many questioned in the national and local media how could this happen? But for African Americans in this community who had long been downtrodden by racial disparities and inequality in the criminal justice, economic, educational and healthcare systems, it was a crisis that was bound to happen.
The Ferguson crisis represented more than just excessive force in a police shooting. It represented an uprising of African Americans who had been oppressed for decades and reached their boiling point. Although Ferguson has a majority black population, it had only one African American member on the city council and 3 African American police officers out of 53 in 2014. Even worse, African American drivers were still more likely to be pulled over in the State of Missouri in 2017.
From the very beginning, many were galvanized to action by the sheer force of the tragedy. Some became activists, some became social workers and some entered into the political field. Corporations such as Centene Corporation, AT&T and Starbucks stepped up to create buildings in the Ferguson area to spur economic development. Local corporations invested millions into scholarships, early childhood education, youth jobs, business development training, youth healthcare, education and mentoring programs. In January 2015, the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis created the Save Our Sons program to help African American men find jobs and the Regional Business Council created the Reinvest North County Fund that raised over $950,000 to help businesses that were effected during the crisis. On July 26, 2017, the Urban League and the Salvation Army opened the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center on the footprint of the QuikTrip which was burned down during the crisis in partnership with the Lutheran Hope Center and the University of Missouri Extension to offer Save Our Sons and other workforce development services, Pathways to Progress and youth training programs.
On the political and public policy fronts, progress was made on the Ferguson City Council to ensure that a more fair and equitable government was put in place. Currently, 4 out of the 6 City Council members are African American compared to there being only one minority five years ago. Wesley Bell was elected to replace former St. Louis County Prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, who oversaw the Brown case. The Ferguson Police Department is now headed by an African American chief with a nearly 50% diversity rate. Senate Bill 5 was passed to lower the limit to 20 percent of a municipality’s revenue that could be generated by traffic fines and fees. This measure was passed to decrease the frequencies of African Americans being unjustly targeted and treated as potential criminals for the benefits of municipalities like Ferguson.
In the years since the civil unrest, there have been several peaks and valleys on the road to progress. While there has been some success, we still have a long way to go. Therefore, it is up to each of us to make the most of every opportunity to move our community forward because the work is not yet done. There are many other developments on the horizon for the City of Ferguson including the upcoming Teen Center of Excellence from the Boys and Girls Club of Greater St. Louis and the Urban League Plaza on West Florissant. Urban League Plaza will feature a full-service bank, restaurant/banquet facility and a minority business incubator. We are very excited to offer this new resource center to the community.
As a region, we must accept the challenge put in front of us to contribute to the full transformation of Ferguson and the surrounding communities. The last five years have seen seeds planted. Through new access to social service resources, diversity in political and civic leadership, and even newly found voices of the people of Ferguson, the future has great potential. However, to fulfill that potential, we encourage the people of this region to establish equitable pathways to wealth. The next great business idea, tech startup, encouraging storefront or restaurant could be located in the Ferguson community. The ability to transform West Florissant into a thriving business district, where the dollar cycles through eight times before leaving Ferguson, is at our fingertips. This dream, this goal rather, can only be actualized and manifested through the total efforts of every entity in the community. Social service agencies must provide space and access to business incubators, development centers and banks to promote financial literacy but more importantly business financial empowerment. Furthermore, the most important thing we must do is continue to support, uplift and unite for the betterment of those who cannot do for themselves. Our future will only be bleak if we give up when the road is toughest.