In January 2007, I flew to Missouri for the first time for a job interview. I was driven around that day by a future co-worker, and we hit it off quickly. He was from Texas, and at some point the conversation turned to the Midwest versus the South. I asked him how race relations compared and will never forget his response:
"The South has at least had to confront its racism. Missouri hasn't."
I'd later learn that the city of Springfield, where I soon landed the job, was infamous for a 1906 incident in which three black men were broken out of jail and lynched in the town square by an angry mob. As a result, most of the city's blacks fled and the area remains overwhelmingly white to this day. A large plaque in Park Central Square, in the shape of an open book, outlines a history of momentous events at the site, but doesn't mention the lynching. A smaller plaque just beneath the book, apparently added much later, admits that unfortunate chapter.
I witnessed some casual racism while living in Springfield. It was different than what I saw in the South, which is a more active prejudice. In southwest Missouri, it was more of a fear of the unknown, because there were so few minorities there and even fewer opportunities to mingle with them. But I found that when everyone came together, such as during the weekly flag-football games my friend and I organized, we were all friends.
Another former co-worker wrote online the other day that St. Louis (where he lived before we worked together) is the most segregated city in America. I'd say the city has plenty of competition, but he made a strong case. I know from living in another largely segregated city — Baton Rouge — that prejudice can fester until that single moment when something causes the tension to pop.
The tragic events in Ferguson have ripped open a lot of wounds, paramount among them racial conflict and the militarization of police. If what my first friend said is true, than Missouri might now be engaging in the brutal, shameful battles that the South once went through. It's an ugly way to open dialogue for something that should have been settled generations ago.
I only hope something positive arises as a result.