FROM FERGUSON TO JEFFERSON CITY, MISSOURIAs told to me by: Mary Ratliff, President – Columbia Chapter NAACP &
NAACP Missouri State Conference of Branches
We had already walked 50 miles when we approached the small town of Rosebud. The police who escorted us on our journey told us we would have to get back on the bus that travelled with us. It was too dangerous for us to walk down the streets of Rosebud, they said. But we refused.In a town that must have a population of 500, at least 400 hundred of them were in the streets, yelling and mocking and threatening us. As I walked down the streets of Rosebud, looking into the twisted faces of men and women spitting evil epithets, one woman, old, obsess and full of hatred chased us from corner to corner with a sign that read “all this for one dead nigger.”
No, this was not Selma Alabama in 1960, but the route between Ferguson Missouri and its state capitol, Jefferson City.The Missouri State Chapter of the NAACP organized the 120-mile march to protest the decision of the Grand Jury not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown down in the streets of Ferguson. NAACP National President/CEO Cornell William Brooks, who led the march, said that we had promised to have feet on the ground the entire 120-mile march, and we were not going to allow the hate that Rosebud Missouri represented stop us. I echoed his sentiments, and other marchers vowed that they too would march through Rosebud Missouri, with heads held high.
We had planned for a moment such as this. Adolphus Pruitt, Ist Vice President of the Missouri Conference and I worked diligently to lay the groundwork for the protest. We had explained to those marching that they could not fight back if attacked because all the media would cover was the violence connected with the march; not the violence that precipitated the march in the first place.This was, perhaps, the most difficult part of the journey. Although we planned for it, we didn’t really expect it. Not like this. I had flashbacks of Bull Conner, fire hoses and dogs. That was all that was missing to make this circa, 1960.
Many students from Lincoln University in Jefferson City had joined the march. One young student approached me and told me, “Mrs. Ratliff, I want to march, but they can’t spit on me, or hit me.” I told him it would be best if he were to ride the bus. I had to explain to him that those types of indignities, none of us wanted to bear. But if it happened, we would have to think of the greater good before giving in to our natural, human desire to meet violence with violence. Straying from our commitment to non-violent protest would surely lead to confrontation, and possibly even death among ourselves or others.We started our journey with about 60 marchers. The numbers rose and fell as we travelled the 120-mile stretch between Ferguson and Jefferson City. We had folks who would come out and walk with us in the evenings, and then go to work the next day.
Our only encounters were not with hatred. Along the way, groups of people would come out to greet us and wish us well. Many brought food and drink. In Rosebud, even, one lone elderly lady stood on the side of the road and told us, “You are doing the right thing.”By the time we reached the capital our numbers had swollen from hundreds to more than a thousand. What we saw on our journey from Ferguson to Jefferson City was both the worst and the best of humanity. The fact that this is not a post-racial society was crystalized in the tense moments when our movement came face-to-face with inbred racism that, if buried at all, lay only in a shallow grave. But we also saw people who looked pass the issue of race and saw the injustice in a system that is supposed to be designed to protect us all.
And that is really the issue. Not whether Mike Brown was a good kid or a bad kid. Not whether Wilson was a good cop doing his job to the best of his ability or a racist angered because a young black man defied him. The issue is whether our justice system can look at those moments when a life was extinguished on the streets of Ferguson Missouri and see neither man; only the acts that took place on that day, and determine whether those acts were just.Thus far, our justice system has not been able to meet that standard. Until that standard is met, we will not stop. We cannot stop. We MUST not stop. In the words of the old Negro spiritual, “I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired!”