For veterans of the civil rights movement, watching the developments in Ferguson, Missouri, unfold and images of police outfitted as if they were in a war zone clashing with demonstrators has been like a bad acid flashback to the sixties, when attempts to engage in peaceful protest were responded to with billy clubs and tear gas. They are heartbroken, but hope to use the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and the aftermath to teach an important civics lesson.
Rep. James Clyburn, the third-most powerful Democrat in the House, speaking on MSNBC, said that while people are reacting to what's happening in Ferguson now, the disrespect that the police have shown African-Americans these past several days didn't start with Brown's shooting, nor is such treatment limited to Ferguson.
Clyburn said that he has been talking with Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) about ways to use what's happening in the Missouri community to engage African-American communities around the nation. The ultimate goal is to help them understand "the relationship between the treatment they get from elected officials and their participation in the electoral process," he explained. The voters are there, Clyburn added, "but for some reason they're not participating and we've got to do something about that because we're not going to solve these problems if we stay out of the arena."
The South Carolina Democrat supports being tough on crime, but a seemingly growing epidemic of "death on blacks" looks deliberate to him, he said, citing the police chokehold that killed Eric Garner. He also supports law enforcement, but believes a way must be found to weed out the bad people wearing badges.
"We can't let Ferguson be just another statistic. We've got to get involved," Clyburn said. "Hopefully this will jump start a movement that will have people all over this country taking a hard look at their communities, the treatment they're getting from elected officials and whether or not that's going to start them participating [in the electoral process] at a greater level as we go forward."
Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), an icon of the civil rights movement, said that the events unfolding in Ferguson have taken him back to that painful period in history. He also suggested that it's very difficult to expect peace and order in a city where so few symbols or people in positions of power, particularly in law enforcement, reflect the majority of people they represent and serve.
Lewis urged elected officials and community leaders to work together to address what's been happening in Ferguson, but said change starts with law enforcement treating all citizens with respect.
"If we fail to act, the fires of frustration and discontent will continue to burn not only in Ferguson, Missouri, but all across America," he said.
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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(Photo: Jeff Roberson/AP Photo)