RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Dream Is Deferred a Little Longer

In preparing this column, it was clear that there was only one subject for a Missouri writer, and that subject is the St. Louis suburb, Ferguson, and the terrible, close-to-the-skin racism that erupted after the killing of Michael Brown. We are clear on the facts — or, rather, we will never be clear on the facts — but the bottom line is that Ferguson has given us a step-by-step blueprint on how NOT to handle things. How a policeman should NOT deal with a teenage boy. How a chief should NOT direct a police department. How a department should NOT handle a protest. How a governor should NOT handle a riot.

And, now, the analysis by the pundits and scholars is predictable. The talking heads insist that if the anger had been contained it could have been controlled. As if containment is the big win. It’s not. In fact, containment is another urban myth. There’s not one example of where containment has worked, unless it worked by completely wiping out the contained population.

So, there’s really not much for me to add to the Michael Brown story.

But “Dream Deferred,” a poem by Missouri-born Langston Hughes, keeps running through my mind: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore—/ And then run? / Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over — / like a syrupy sweet? / Maybe it just sags/like a heavy load./ Or does it explode?”

Because, for the black folks living in Ferguson, moving to that place may have been like a dream. Out of the inner city, perhaps to get the kids away from the gangs. Maybe they’d secured a job with Emerson Electric, headquartered in Ferguson. Maybe they were taking classes at St. Louis Community College, working toward a better life. Maybe the grown-ups were so busy improving themselves that they didn’t see the kids with their dreams deferred. After all, Ferguson boasts good schools, a decent library, parks, transportation. What else could the kids want?

Whatever the reason, Ferguson’s racial composition had changed swiftly. In 1990, white people were 73.8% of the population and blacks 25.1%. Ten years later, white flight had shifted the numbers to 44.7% white and 52.4% black. By 2010, 29.3% were white and 67.4% black.

Like many cities, St. Louis has a long heritage of racism in housing. Unlike most (but not all) other cities, the racism was written into law for a while, and it took a case decided by the US Supreme Court to change it. In Missouri and 18 other states and in the District of Columbia, whites had written restrictive covenants into property deeds that prohibited sale of the property to non-whites.

Then one black lawyer, George Vaughn, gathered the forces of law and made it change for the good. Here’s how: In 1945, an African-American real estate broker purchased a home through a white buyer. Interestingly, it’s about 5 miles from Ferguson, just across I-70. The home was then sold to J.D. and Ethel Shelley, a black couple with no knowledge of a restrictive covenant going back to 1911. There were five African-American families in the area, so they assumed that it was an integrated community. In truth, this covenant, which prohibited any property owner, their heirs, or future owners to sell or rent to “Negroes or Mongolians” for 50 years, covered many of the houses.

As it happened, the NAACP National Office was interested in having restrictive covenants declared unconstitutional and watched this case proceed under George Vaughn from the local courts through Missouri’s Supreme Court. The NAACP held a series of conferences between 1945 and 1947 at Howard University to encourage a coordinated legal attack. These conferences were led by Thurgood Marshall, Charles Houston, and William H. Hastie, and Vaughn attended and contributed. Marshall and the others wanted more time to develop their legal cases, but Vaughn could not wait. He appealed the Shelley case to the US Supreme Court. The NAACP decided to add other restrictive covenant cases to the Shelley case, and the Court accepted.

Vaughn argued Shelley vs. Kraemer on January 15, 1948, aided by white St. Louis attorney Herman Willer. On May 3, 1948, the Supreme Court struck down the enforcement of restrictive covenants, accepting all of Vaughn’s arguments from the first time the case was tried in the St. Louis Circuit Court. The dream of equal housing seemed within reach.

For me, 100 miles from Ferguson, I have spent way too much time thinking about how easy it is to make enemies—marginalizing, refusing jobs, stereotyping, militarizing. We need to change the story and spend our time another way. Like Vaughn, we need to start thinking and acting on how to solve the problems that led to the Ferguson situation.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2014

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