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Activist DeRay Mckesson returns to St. Louis to promote book rooted in Ferguson protests

DeRay Mckesson poses in the trademark blue vest that he first wore in the early days of the Ferguson protests.
Adam Mayer
DeRay Mckesson poses in the trademark blue vest that he first wore in the early days of the Ferguson protests.

An educator who quit his job to join the Ferguson protests, and then became a nationally known activist is coming back to St. Louis on Thursday.

DeRay Mckesson will appear at Union Avenue Christian Church to talk about his book, “On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope.”

The Baltimore native, 33, ran in the Democratic primary for mayor of his home town two years ago and finished in sixth place. He co-hosts a podcast called “Pod Save the People,”with St. Louisan Brittany Packnett.

St. Louis Public Radio talked with Mckesson about his experiences and his book.

Nancy Fowler: Did you have a particular reader or readers in mind when you wrote your book?


DeRay Mckesson: When I've thought about who I was writing to, it was a mixed bag. I was writing to people who identify as activists; I was writing to people who don't identify as anything but do the work of activism, writing to people who needed advice.

The last part of the book was about a letter to an activist and I want to put down all the things I wish somebody had told me. There’s a chapter on whiteness that I wanted to write, to and about white people in a way that could arm them so that they could be ready to do work better.

So the book is meant to appeal to a range of people and to equip a range of people to do work.

Fowler: In the book, you specifically give credit to the people of Ferguson and St. Louis who immediately took to the streets after Michael Brown was shot and killed. At the same time, you have been criticized by some people in St. Louis who say that you and others came in from out of town and garnered national publicity — meeting with President Obama and becoming friends with Beyoncé — that maybe should have gone to local protesters. What do you say about those kinds of claims?

Mckesson: You know, I was in the streets for a very long time in St. Louis, as long as anybody else who stayed in the streets for the initial wave of the protests. I have always tried to use my access and the platform to amplify the work of everybody doing the work.

I'm mindful of the criticisms. You know, I'm from Baltimore; I moved to St. Louis. And I moved home to Baltimore when Freddie Gray got killed and I realized I needed to do work back home … and that was important to me. And I also know that I'm not the only person that can tell the truth, that I'm one of many people who was in the streets. I say that in the book and I say that every time I can, that there's so many people who helped make the protest what it is and we all had specific roles and we all did things. And I wanted to use the book to name those people that people might not know.

Fowler: And now this work seems to be your life's work, with the podcast and your continued speaking out. Did you ever foresee that this might be your life?

Mckesson: Well, I hope that this is not all I do. We should not have to fight like this. As much as this work is important, like, I love teaching. You know, I love being in a classroom. I loved running my schools and I loved running my after-school center — those things.

So I want to figure out how we win so we can all get back to doing the things that we love and not having to fight the system.

Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

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Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.
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