Anyone who has studied the role of religion in American history knows why the voice of clergy have always played such a crucial role in the story of African-Americans in this land.
During the darkest days in the generations after death of slavery, fierce racism continued to prevent all but a few brave blacks from pursuing degrees in law, medicine and other elite fields. The vast majority of those who earned elite degrees served others in black communities and that was pretty much that.
But in the historic African-American churches, men went to seminaries (and among Pentecostals, in particular, women as well) and returned to become the public voices of the people in the pews and on the streets. They were the faces that were turned outward, into society as a whole.
This brings us to #Ferguson, of course, and the coverage of the events after the grand jury report was made public. As Bobby said this morning, we will appreciate help from readers as we try to sift through the mainstream coverage of this event, looking for the work of reporters who followed up on the work of pastors who pledged that their church facilities would be safe havens for all, no matter what. Did any churches burn?
I was struck, when I first reached by computer this morning, by the contrast between the main coverage in The Washington Post and in The New York Times. This was the kind of pivotal, national news event that -- since journalists had days or even weeks to seek out sources and to plan coverage -- readers have a chance to look inside the minds of editors and glimpse how they approach the news.
The bottom line? The Post team clearly was searching for the Ferguson pastors on or near the scene. The Times team? I frankly found the religion-angle silence, in the early coverage, to be rather shocking. Here are one or two of the crucial sections of the extensive Post coverage, in this case from a lengthy sidebar focusing on the Ferguson community reaction:
There was little looting here, except for the bewigged mannequins that young men dragged from the beauty shop into the street.
“I feel like the verdict was unfair, that it shouldn’t have taken so long to reach it,” said Duane Coats, a calm voice amid the cries and profane jeers, an elder with the Christian Faith Center. His task, he said, was to stop protesters from throwing bottles and persuade them to stick to peaceful actions. Protest organizers had deployed him and other clergy members to the likely hot spots in greater St. Louis to try to urge nonviolence.
Once again, note that this church leader was part of a network in the region working on this issue. This is precisely what I was talking about earlier. You know that journalists were in touch with the organizers of the mainstream protests linked to local institutions, in the black community and otherwise.
Were these clergy hard to find? To spot in the swirling action at the scene? Note a crucial detail in this passage:
As they tried to force the demonstrators to move, some officers had heated exchanges with members of the clergy who attempted to serve as intermediaries. Officers pushed them aside and demanded that the crowd move from the sidewalk.
“Ron Johnson is getting a call from me tomorrow,” declared Pastor Robert White, who leads a congregation in downtown St. Louis and was wearing a bright orange “Clergy United” T-shirt. He was referring to the Missouri Highway Patrol captain. “This proves that all of that training was just training in how to arrest people, not how to de-escalate.”
At nearby Wellspring United Methodist Church, volunteer medics brought two women suffering from the effects of tear gas to recuperate.
Was this organized clergy presence a surprise? Of course not. Check out this BuzzFeed blog post from last summer, under the headline, "How Clergy In Ferguson Succeeded Where The Police Failed."
In short, the work of the clergy who had long been been active at grassroots level was followed closely by Post reporters when, literally, push came to shove.
Now, search for similar passages in this early Times report. I am looking for sidebars and updates online, but have not found one that includes the obvious religious angles. This reference struck me as interesting:
... (Many) here questioned why the authorities would announce the decision in the evening, rather than waiting for daylight hours. Furious, sometimes violent, demonstrations and tense clashes with the police took place late into the night for several weeks in August, and some law enforcement officers had urged a daytime announcement. Over a period of weeks, many leaders here had suggested that a Sunday morning announcement would be best, but the grand jury, which had been meeting on the case since Aug. 20, finished its work on Monday. ...
Many of the elaborate plans for how the grand jury’s decision would be released -- including 48-hour notice for the police after the decision -- appeared to have been scrapped. The family of Mr. Brown, 18, who was killed by Officer Wilson on Aug. 9, was notified by prosecutors in the afternoon, after some reports had already appeared on television and online. A lawyer for the family expressed frustration that they had not been told sooner.
Interesting. Who were the "many leaders" who were seeking the release of this explosive report on Sunday morning? That's an interesting timing, to say the least.
Stay tuned. There are ghosts all over the place in this ongoing drama.