“How long has this pressure been building between the police and the people of Ferguson?”
That was the question Reverend Al Sharpton on Politics Nation asked on Tuesday August 12th, 2014 to Mr. Joseph Anderson, President of 100 Black Men of Metropolitan St. Louis (watch the segment called “Ferguson, MO, a history of racial profiling?).
Joseph Anderson responded:
“Well Reverend Sharpton, I would say it’s been building for years.”
How about 158 years.
Since March 6th, 1857 Blacks have been trying to find a legitimate right to exist in the state of Missouri as freedmen and women rather than as the “imported” property of slave holders. In the landmark 1854 Dred Scott vs. Sanford Supreme Court case (I really enjoy teaching it to my students) the powerful pioneer, Dred Scott, sued John Sanford for his freedom. And, it took careful planning and courage on Dred Scott’s behalf.
Dred Scott’s efforts for his own freedom was so powerful that his case led to the Supreme Court declaring that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the legislation that declared states North of the 36 30’ parallel line (the Mason-Dixon Line) were “free” and all states beneath it would be “slave” states, was an act of Congress that was unconstitutional.
Oh yes! Dred Scott was that brother.
Through all of the legal proceedings, all but two of the justices of the case consented that Dred Scott, due to his status as property, had no legal claims to sue for his freedom. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney offered that since Blacks had already been considered an inferior race, and because we had been subjects of importation due to the slave trade, we were a different group of people, even more different from the Native Americans—to Taney, we were an “unfortunate” race without any claims to independence and therefore, “had no rights the white man was bound to respect.”
Ultimately, Dred Scott did not win his freedom through the Supreme Court–he was purchased by the son of the first owner he sued in 1847, Peter Blow, after the 1857 decision. Dred Scott made a strong statement about asserting our rights to stand on principles of freedom, justice and equality. He knew what it would mean to have them heard by the highest authorities, even when those authorities did not want to listen. And, he made a profound statement about the love he had for us.
Ferguson has not happened in a vacuum. The tensions between the people and the authorities in St. Louis and the surrounding municipalities have always existed. According to the Los Angeles Times, the demographics of the Ferguson city officials have little or no Black representation; Ferguson’s city council has sixteen percent (16%) Black representation, its police department only boasts of a whopping six percent (6%) Black representation—of its fifty-three (53) commissioned officers, three (3) are Black and its school board has zero percent (0%). However, sixty-seven percent (67%) of Ferguson’s population is Black according the US Census!
The statistics from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office show that Blacks are far more likely to be pulled over in “routine” traffic stops than whites— in 2013 for whites, it was a mere thirteen percent (13%), whereas for Blacks, it was an astonishing eighty-six percent (86%)!
Finally, according to Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, the residents have relayed to him that “these tensions have been simmering to the surface for years.”
Sometimes old issues lay dormant until something—a change in the times or the looming feeling that something and/or someone has been lost, comes along and helps whatever lies dormant to resurface again. In the case of Ferguson, it is the killing of Michael Brown.
The energy of the people in Ferguson is telling me that the people are conjuring the conviction of St. Louis’ greatest democracy bearer, Mr. Dred Scott. Michael Brown’s life, while prematurely taken, serves a greater purpose and he now joins the ranks of the ancestors. None of us are happy that this beautiful 18 year-old teenager is no long living a physical experience with us. None of us are happy that 158 year-old tensions still exist in Missouri and around our nation. But, we have the power to change all of this madness by continuing the fight for what our ancestors started, improve our quality of life by electing the policymakers at the helm of that quality through our votes, and by declaring our rights to be. Unapologetically.
We can do this Dred Scott’s way and give 158 years an expiration date of now.