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Want to understand what’s behind protests in St. Louis? Here’s a reading list

Kris Kleindienst, co-owner of Left Bank Books, stand next to the ResiSTL display table.
Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio

The protests in St. Louis over the last three weeks have topped the news almost daily.

Even for those who stay up on what’s happening, there may be questions about how this came to pass again, just three years after race-related protests in Ferguson.

Delving into St. Louis’ history of racial division and relations between police and black people can seem overwhelming. St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman set out to make a reading list with recommendations from people who are used to being asked.

Left Bank Books

Left Bank Books has been in the heart of the Central West End since the mid-1970s.

On Sept. 15, the day a former St. Louis police officer was found not guilty of first-degree murder, protests rolled right by the store. Co-owner Kris Kleindienst said it was mostly positive, as store employees passed out water bottles, snacks and Black Lives Matters signs to protesters.

Later some young men started to stir up trouble; one threw a rock at the bookstore’s window. The rock bounced off, and Kleindienst said it wasn’t police in riot gear that diffused the situation.

“A sternly worded lecture from an older woman was all that was needed,” she said with a laugh.

In fact, one of her first recommendations for those trying to understand more about the protests is a book about police: Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces by Washington Post investigative reporter Radley Balko.

“It’s a good history of how policing got its start to begin with, and goes on to the present day and how the police in the United States have become militarized, and documents a lot of accounts of how that has or has not worked out,” Kleindienst said.

Her next recommendation is Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen. Kleindienst said the term “sundown towns” isn’t necessarily known by whites, yet southern Illinois and the St. Louis region come up several times.

“This book is just full of accounts of communities where literally after sundown if you’re black you need to not be there. And, again, it’s the kind of thing that’s well known to people of color but really unknown to white people,” she said.

Her third recommendation is Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King. Kleindienst said it recounts how Marshall, working as a young attorney for the NAACP, steps into a case that involved a violent Florida sheriff and the Ku Klux Klan.

"I think it's an important account of what institutionalized racism is capable of and the kind of trauma and intimidation and fear that African-American citizens have been subjected to," she said.

Left Bank Books also has table labeled “ResiSTL” right as you walk in the door.

Johnson Lancaster has been working at the Progressive Emporium and Education Center off and on since the early 1980s. Oct. 2017
Credit Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio
Johnson Lancaster has been working at the Progressive Emporium and Education Center off and on since the early 1980s.

Progressive Emporium and Education Center

The Progressive Emporium and Education Center is one of a few black-owned bookstores in the St. Louis region. Longtime employee Johnson Lancaster can remember when there were at least a dozen.

The St. Louis native and former reporter has worked off and on at Progressive Emporium’s various locations since the early 1980s.

“We actually started in this neighborhood first in the basement of a house,” he said. “Most people didn’t know it was there, but those who did could knock on the door and we’d let them in.”

The store is now located at 1108 N. Sarah St., where Lancaster offered a long list of book recommendations dealing with St. Louis’ history of racial division. He said a must read is Ferguson is America: Roots of Rebellion by longtime community organizer and activist Jamala Rogers.

“She has about 40 years of community organizing and political activism coming out of the Black Power/civil rights era of St. Louis,” he said, “And then the Organization for Black Struggle, of which she is one of the co-founders, is very key in understanding the relationship between police brutality and the black community in St. Louis.”

Lancaster also recommends Grassroots at the Gateway: Class Politics and Black Freedom Struggle in St. Louis, 1936-75 by Clarence Lang. It explores how African-Americans migrating from the South into industrialized St. Louis impacted the labor movement and politics.

Lancaster said, "1936 is a key year because several prominent black St. Louisans moved black people out of the Republican Party to the Democratic Party. George L. Vaughn, Jordan Chambers. Homer G. Phillips, among other people, were responsible for the mass political shift."

Lancaster’s other recommendations:

  • Good Order and Safety: A History of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, 1861-1906 by Allen E. Wagner

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

  • Policing the Black Man: Arrest, Prosecution, and Imprisonment edited and with an introduction by Angela J. Davis

  • The Jefferson Bank Confrontation: The Struggle for Civil Rights in St. Louis by William L. Clay

  • Just Permanent Interests by William L. Clay

  • On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A'Lelia Bundles

  • A Friend to All Mankind: Mrs. Annie Turnbo Malone and Poro College by John H. Whitfield

  • St. Louis: Disappearing Black Communities by John A Wright Sr.
We Live Here co-hosts Kameel Stanley (center) and Tim Lloyd (right) speak with "To the Best of Our Knowledge" producer Charles Monroe-Kane in June, 2017.
Credit Provided | August Jennewein | UMSL
"We Live Here" co-hosts Kameel Stanley (center) and Tim Lloyd (right) speak with "To the Best of Our Knowledge" producer Charles Monroe-Kane in June, 2017.

We Live Here

St. Louis Public Radio’s podcast “We Live Here” is in its third season of exploring race and class. Co-host Tim Lloyd describes it as a show that’s “for people somewhere on the woke spectrum.”

Lloyd's first recommendation is Ferguson's Fault Lines: The Race Quake That Rocked a Nation, edited by Kimberly Jade Norwood, a Washington University professor.

“To me I think it answers a question that I get a lot, especially from white listeners to our show, which is ‘what do you mean by systemic racism?”” Lloyd said. “I think for any of those who don’t know where to begin to understand what systemic racism means, especially systemic racism in St. Louis, this is a good 101 overview.”

Lloyd describes his second recommendation as a dense read that’s almost a post-mortem on racist housing policies and how it shaped people’s lives in St. Louis. Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City by Colin Gordon has become nearly required reading for St. Louis journalists.

“For anyone who wants to know what base level what systemic racism looks like in real life, in practice, in written policy, and how that shapes people’s lives and, in particular, how it shapes people’s lives in St. Louis, I think Mapping Decline is the go-to,” he said.

Mary Ferguson is the racial justice coordinator for the YWCA Metro St. Louis.
Credit Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio
Mary Ferguson is the racial justice coordinator for the YWCA Metro St. Louis.

YWCA Metro St. Louis

A big part of the YWCA Metro St. Louis’ racial justice mission revolves around one book: Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It by Shelly Tochluk.

The YWCA has been facilitating a program around the book since 2011. Racial justice consultant Mary Ferguson said the book's exploration of white identity is eye-opening for many white people and can be a hard read in isolation.

“Racism exists in a way that our role in it and our agency isn’t always seen. For many people it’s such a pulling back of the veil that they get to see this information and they have to process it along the way,” Ferguson said.

At the YWCA, facilitators take all-white groups through the book, chapter-by-chapter. through a 10-week program. About 15 groups with up to 25 people each are enrolled; the next session begins in January.

Ferguson has more suggestions for those who want to get a better understanding of what’s happening in St. Louis. As a former educator, she found Stepping over the Color Line: African-American Students in White Suburban Schools by Amy Stuart Wells provides a good explanation of St. Louis’ school desegregation plan.

"I think it does a phenomenal job, and for people who don’t know that history it’s an excellent resource,” Ferguson said.

Facilitators at the YWCA often read books and discuss them as a group. Recently Ferguson said they read They Can't Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America's Racial Justice Movement by Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery.

“The way that book presented Ferguson but also linked Ferguson to Baltimore to north Charleston and then the Mizzou protests, provided a valuable perspective to see what’s unique in St. Louis and what’s not unique at all,” she said.

Other books she suggests:

  • White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

  • Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice by Mark R. Warren

  • Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving

Ferguson said at the end of the Witnessing Whiteness program participants tend to better understand the context around “the moment." 
"It’s not just this moment,” she said. “It’s an accumulation of moments and decisions and actions that have led to the current moment.”   

That could be a good way of framing the current protests, as well.

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.