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Editor's Weekly: Three snapshots of change in St. Louis

Wellspring Church in Ferguson, September 21, 2015.
Kelly Moffitt, St. Louis Public Radio

Now that the Ferguson Commission has made its report, what are St. Louisans thinking? Monday at Wellspring Church in Ferguson, many expressed frustration — with officials, obstacles and each other. But another note sounded clearly through the discontent: determination to press forward.

This was St. Louis Public Radio’s third visit to Wellspring. Each has produced a snapshot of a crucial moment in the journey that began with Michael Brown’s death.

An audience member shows Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III a rubber bullet wound that he says he received during unrest in the north St. Louis County city. A forum sponsored by St. Louis Public Radio became heated, with ire being directed at Knowles.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Aug. 28 2014: An audience member shows Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III a rubber bullet wound.

The first forum, hosted by NPR’s Michel Martin in August 2014, captured a moment of despair and disruption. Some speakers expressed outrage — about Brown’s death, about police/protester confrontations and about longstanding racial issues. Others there were fed up with unrest and disorder. St. Louis was in the national spotlight, and a new conversation about racial injustice was beginning.

We returned to Wellspring last March after the U.S. Justice Department issued two pivotal reports. One excoriated Ferguson’s police and court for unconstitutional and discriminatory practices. The other challenged myths about what happened when Officer Darren Wilson shot Brown and explained why Wilson would not be indicted.

Activist DeRay Mckesson and NPR's Michel Martin address the crowd on March 23, 2015, during Ferguson and Beyond forum at Wellspring Church in Ferguson.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
March 23, 2015: Activist DeRay Mckesson and moderator Michel Martin address the crowd.

That snapshot caught the region at a turning point. The intense focus on Brown’s death was about to fade. Would attention to the underlying issues fade as well? The Rev. Willis Johnson, pastor at Wellspring, was worried. “I struggle with wondering if in Ferguson, in North County, in St. Louis, if we really want to change,” he said then.

Last Monday’s forum, hosted by St. Louis Public Radio’s Don Marsh, focused squarely on change as outlined in recommendations from the Ferguson Commission’s recent report. Johnson remains concerned. “Are we really ready to do the heavy lifting …?" he asked.

Wellspring Church senior pastor Willis Johnson says people in Ferguson are searching for quick, easy answers. But he says the problems at hand require much more than public policy initiatives.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Wellspring Church senior pastor Willis Johnson says positive change has happened, but for some, biases have been reinforced.

“We have made some strides, “ he said. “… but we have in many cases become even further entrenched in our biases.” Johnson was angry about the lack of acceptance and respect that he has personally encountered in Ferguson. His frustration resonated in the sanctuary, drawing a standing ovation from many.

Panelists and audience members who spoke had obviously thought long and hard about St. Louis’ racial divide. They were under no illusions about the difficulty of bridging it. The commission’s report notes that the Missouri General Assembly holds the power to enact many of the recommendations. But the audience chuckled at the notion that state officials would take the lead.

Several speakers thanked the Ferguson Commission for laying the groundwork for change, but acknowledged that achieving it will take public pressure on many fronts for many years.In fact, one veteran political operative observed, transformative change may have to wait for the emergence of new political leadership grounded in the extraordinary events of the past year.

Of course, odds always run against achieving historic change. And yet, when circumstances and will coincide, it happens. Determination was the underlying note at Wellspring Church last Monday, and those who sounded it seemed unlikely to turn back.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.