Never-before-seen personal documents and correspondence preserved for fifty years from my journal and collection of original Warren Commission documents. I have used these documents and my journal as a primary source in my book about the Warren Commission.

Ferguson and the Civil Rights Movement

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Ferguson and the Civil Rights Movement

Until two week ago, the town of Ferguson, MO was mostly unknown by those not living in the St. Louis metropolitan region. That all changed on Aug. 9, when an eighteen year-old African American young man named Michael Brown was fatally shot by a local Ferguson PD officer named Darren Wilson[1].

What transpired to cause Brown’s death remains unclear and hotly-debated. The police claim “Brown physically assaulted the officer, and during a struggle between the two, Brown reached for the officer’s gun. One shot was fired in the car followed by other gunshots outside of the car”[1]

Some local community members contest this version of events. They believe the killing of Michael Brown reflects widespread racial discrimination against their community on the part of police. They point to other incidents where unarmed African Americans have been victims of violence, from police or self-appointed vigilantes like George Zimmerman. [1]

This tension between community and police erupted in several nights of violent clashes in the week after Brown’s death. On Aug. 13, the police threw “tear gas at protesters in Ferguson in order to disperse crowds. During the commotion, police also force media to move back

Ferguson up in flames

Ferguson up in flames

out of the area and throw tear gas at an Al Jazeera America crew.” [1]

Although we have come a long way since Jim Crow, I am sad to say that in this arena, not enough progress has been made since the 1960s. President Kennedy in many ways pioneered civil rights protections under law and thought long and hard about the most effective ways that he could use Federal power to enforce equal treatment under the law.

The most notable example occurred early in JFK’s presidency, when the University of Alabama was forced to racially integrate, a move opposed by the Governor of Alabama. President Kennedy had to decide to what extent to intervene. Amazingly, this decision was captured on camera by documentarian Robert Drew. Here, we can watch JFK consider this exact question.

Ultimately, JFK took action. He sent National Guard troopers to Alabama to ensure the safety of the first Black students at the University. He also proposed the foundation of the Civil Rights act of 1964 – which provided that businesses of public accommodation, like restaurants and hotels, could not racially discriminate. President Johnson signed that bill into law after JFK was assassinated. You can see JFK’s historic Civil Rights Address where he announced his decision to send the National Guard to protect African American students and called on Americans everywhere to end discrimination in its entirety here:

JFK would have been proud to see his Civil Rights bill enacted, but he would be disappointed with the lack of other progress, such as closing the income, life-expectancy and life-outcome gaps he discusses in his video.

 

 

[1] http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/08/14/michael-brown-ferguson-missouri-timeline/14051827/

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Howard Willens

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