“Ferguson was used by some of America’s enemies and critics to deflect attention from their shortcomings overseas; to undermine our efforts to promote justice around the world … But America is special not because we’re perfect; America is special because we work to address our problems, to make our union more perfect. We fight for more justice. We fight to cure what ails us.
We fight for our ideals, and we’re willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short. And we address our differences in the open space of democracy – with respect for the rule of law; with a place for people of every race and religion; and with an unyielding belief that people who love their country can change it.” – President Barack Obama
Three years ago, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, fatally shot an unarmed, Black 18-year-old named Michael Brown. The anger and unrest sparked by that shooting came to be symbolized by the image of a burning convenience store on West Florissant Avenue.
And it presented one of the greatest challenges of his career for Michael McMillan, who’d been appointed president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis just a year before.
From the ashes
Last week, hope rose from the ashes as McMillan and I opened the National Urban League Conference with the dedication of the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, built upon the foundation of that convenience store.
After Michael Brown’s tragic death, activists and advocates from across the nation, activists and advocates converged upon Ferguson, rightly and justly bringing the eyes and ears of America to focus on a violent injustice. When the marchers and the protestors had moved on, it was the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, under McMillan’s outstanding leadership, who went to work, literally building upon that foundation.
The building is shared by the Salvation Army and the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, and will house the Urban League’s Save Our Sons program, is one of the most successful job placement initiatives anywhere in the nation.
While in St. Louis, I had the pleasure to meet 35-year-old Willard Donlow Jr. A little over a year ago, he found himself in a deep depression. A single father, newly divorced, he had lost his job. He was praying for a way out. And his prayer was answered.
Through Save Our Sons, he learned new computer skills, how to craft a résumé, how to network, how to present yourself in the right manner at an interview, how to find a job, and how to keep a job. Just three days after completing the program, he was offered a job. He’s now hard at work redeveloping abandoned buildings in St. Louis.
As part of the opening ceremonies, we dedicated a memorial to Michael Brown. The concrete slab into which a bench and plaque are set is flecked with pink, orange and yellow. These colors are the shreds of 100 stuffed animals left as part of a makeshift memorial in the middle of the street where Brown died. The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis kept the offerings in storage when the street had to be cleared.
The plaque reads, “This bench and decorative concrete base commemorate the social justice, change and movement towards a more just society that came about after his death. This base contains pieces of his memorial in the Canfield Green Apartments complex brought by people from all over the world.”
The Ferguson Empowerment Center stands as a tribute to the Urban League Movement’s mission to create a more just society, and the young men whose lives will be transformed there will be a testament to that mission.
Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.