Ferguson is too important to be treated on the margins. It is too important to lead the news one day, and disappear the next. The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the police response to the demonstrations that followed, the horror of a clearly biased prosecutor driving a grand jury to fail to make an indictment — all this isn’t simply about Ferguson. There is a Ferguson in every metropolitan area of America.
At times, a single incident throws a powerful light on a reality. Ferguson is one of those times. And to ensure that this reality is not simply discussed in passing, but dealt with, elevated to the top of the national agenda, President Obama should come to Ferguson.
In 1965, one week after the police riot that greeted peaceful demonstrators trying to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress, calling on them to pass the Voting Rights Act, and making the electric promise that “we shall overcome.” Johnson knew that the Selma horrors exposed a reality that could no longer be ignored. It was time to act.
In 1967, after riots broke out in cities across the country, Johnson convened a commission headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner with a mandate to probe the causes of the riots and recommend actions so that these tragedies would not be repeated.
The Kerner Commission’s conclusion — that we were moving toward “ two societies, one white and one black, separate and unequal” — captured the nation’s attention. The commission concluded that African-Americans saw the police as an occupying force, dispatched to protect the privileges of whites, and insensitive to the protection of the minority community’s lives or rights. It found that disparate underlying conditions providing the kindling that could be sparked by incidents at any time, and that these conditions were present across the country, including racially segregated communities, scarred by inferior schools, high unemployment, inadequate public services from public transport to parks to hospitals.
The Commission called for action, and demanded that it be accompanied by a budget sufficient to make the necessary changes. The growing war in Vietnam squelched those hopes.
Twenty-four years later, after Los Angeles riots that followed acquittal of the four white policemen in the beating of Rodney King ended in 60 deaths and a billion dollars of damages the Christopher Commission was created to probe the causes, finding that not much had changed.
The country cannot afford neglect for another quarter century. It is time to act. President Obama should come to Ferguson. He should lay out the structural realities that lie exposed in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown — and that are common to cities across the country. He should demand action on an agenda for reviving these communities, and rebuilding trust and hope.
A high-level commission, chaired by distinguished bipartisan leadership, could probe the conditions that produce that shooting and others like it across the country. Its focus should be less on the behavior of police and more on the conditions of the community. It should assess the system of criminal injustice, but go beyond to the structural realities that create Fergusons. Its report should be clear and pointed; its reform agenda comprehensive, with a budget attached. The president should include that in his next budget, and call on Congress and the country to act.
Ferguson, like Selma, exposes injustice that has been building for years. The president’s engagement can make Ferguson, like Selma, a spur for long-overdue reform. The risks of failure are great. The first African-American president has understandable reluctance to challenge the country on civil rights or on the rights of black communities. His cautious speech after the prosecutor’s announcement of the grand jury decision reflected that.
But the risks were great when Eisenhower dispatched the troops to Little Rock to enforce school desegregation. They were great when Johnson promised to overcome in his speech on Voting Rights after Selma. Leadership involves taking risks. And the costs of acting, even if the Congress refuses to act, are far less than the costs of moving on from Ferguson until the next child is shot and the next impoverished and isolated community erupts.
Jesse Jackson is the founder Rainbow/Operation PUSH.