FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — Leading black members of Congress took to a church pulpit in Ferguson, Missouri, on Sunday to trace a direct link from Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy to the fight for criminal justice reform after recent fatal police shootings across the U.S.
Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. spoke to parishioners at Wellspring United Methodist Church, just blocks from where violent protests broke out after a Ferguson officer shot 18-year-old Michael Brown and again after a grand jury declined to indict the officer.
"We need to be outraged when local law enforcement and the justice system repeatedly allow young, unarmed black men to encounter police and then wind up dead with no consequences," the St. Louis Democrat said. "Not just in Ferguson, but over and over again across this country."
Clay was joined by eight members of the Congressional Black Caucus at the service a day after several caucus members met with young protesters, many of whom have been critical of older elected officials and an earlier generation of activists.
On Sunday, he sharply criticized St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch's handling of the grand jury that investigated Brown's shooting. He cited an anonymous jury member's lawsuit seeking to publicly speak out about the grand jury proceedings, which aren't public. He also noted legal and ethical complaints filed over the prosecutor's actions, including allowing witnesses whose testimony had been discredited to testify before the jury.
But he expressed faith in two federal civil rights investigations examining Brown's death and broader police practices in Ferguson — invoking King's efforts a half-century ago that led to federal intervention in state and local civil rights cases. He also quoted King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail."
"We are faced with the obvious failure of local officials, who are either unable, or unwilling, to provide equal justice under the law," he said. "So once again, our community looks toward the federal government to make the promises enshrined in the Constitution finally ring true."
Caucus chairman Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat, said the group planned to push for broad reforms, such as expanded police use of body cameras and independent investigations of fatal police shootings.
He called the prolonged protests over recent deaths — including Brown, Eric Garner in New York and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland — a "turning point in race relations." Garner died after being put in a chokehold by a New York City police officer during an arrest for allegedly selling cigarettes, while Rice was shot in a park while holding a pellet gun.
Protests have been ongoing in and around the St. Louis suburb since Brown's fatal shooting in August, though protesters have largely shifted their focus to changing laws in Washington and Missouri.
On the day before the federal holiday honoring King, Butterfield hailed the late civil rights leader's efforts to push for passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the subject of a new Hollywood film, "Selma." King led three voting-rights marches from the rural Alabama town to the state capital of Montgomery.
Rep. Andre Carson, D-Indiana, echoed his colleagues' references.
"Ferguson is the new Selma," he said. "It's time, in Ferguson."
BET Politics - Your source for the latest news, photos and videos illuminating key issues and personalities in African-American political life, plus commentary from some of our liveliest voices. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.
(Photo: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)