July 11, St. Louis time. Hot and—it usually goes without saying—humid, despite the city’s habit of snubbing the epic river that put it there. At the bottom of an ugly economic contraction, a dozen demonstrators, Black and White, occupy the office of the mayor in City Hall. Three thousand supporters, some of them growing used to the sensation of hunger, chant outside on Market Street against police harassment and skyrocketing unemployment, waiting to learn if the mayor will negotiate with those clogging the reception room. An organizer, ignoring the weather in dark clothing, climbs the City Hall steps. He calls for quiet, raises his practiced voice, and lets the crowd know the news is bad. He summons his listeners to do something with their anger and disappointment, and asks them to enter the ornate lobby, a product of the city’s World’s Fair building boom and modeled on the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. Many follow him inside, led by a group of around fifty Black women who are the first to climb the lobby’s marble staircase. The organizer urges military veterans to form a protective wall behind the women, and over a hundred take up his offer. St. Louisans do not need step-by-step directions to fall into this kind of line. They have been protesting this way, here and there, north and south of Market, at least since the General Strike of 1877, elaborating on a street-level political tradition that is as much their inheritance as rooting for the Cardinals and the Stars, picking up a St. Paul sandwich, and swapping out “or” with “ar.”
By now, you have probably picked up on the trick of the tale: it all could have happened yesterday, or a hundred years before.
When the women reach the top of the stairs, veterans at their backs, things turn ugly in a way to which St. Louisans have become accustomed. A policeman, unnerved by the crowd’s intensity, throws a tear gas bomb. A demonstrator throws it back, shades of the famous photo of Ferguson protestor Edward Crawford, bag of chips in one hand, flaming gas canister in the other, American flag shirt in the balance. The police retreat, coughing and half-blinded, but then regroup in the rotunda and storm out of City Hall straight into the throng. Their guns are drawn, and not just for show. Within fifteen minutes, a crowd of thousands has been cleared save for four men shot down by officers. All of the victims survive, but they, along with scores of other protestors, are quickly charged with disturbing the peace or rioting, the latter a crime punishable by a year in the city Workhouse and a $1000 fine. The Metropolitan Police announce their own injuries from demonstrators’ bricks and blows; newspapers report that an officer “was treated for a sprained wrist sustained while swinging a club.” Radical agitators, police spokesmen testify, had incited a full-blown “July Riot.” One of those agitators quips in turn that “[e]ven a Communist can be hungry” and insists instead that a non-violent protest was crushed by a riot of police. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen maneuvers to avoid antagonizing either side, but within a week of the violence accedes to the demonstrators and passes a measure creating a network of emergency food pantries. “By the end of the summer,” concludes the most complete account of the incident, most of those charged with rioting have been found innocent “or sent home by hung juries.” This time, in a long line of hot summers, protest has taken blows but extracted a life-saving concession.
By now, you have probably picked up on the trick of the tale: it all could have happened yesterday, or a hundred years before. The St. Louis July depicted above rhymes broadly with the summer of Michael Brown’s 2014 killing in Ferguson. More precisely, it might be the month in 2020 that ended just months ago, when protestors targeting police racism, a brewing hunger crisis, and the continued operation of the city Workhouse returned again and again to City Hall, calling for the resignation of Mayor Lyda Krewson while pressing her to “Protect Our Unhoused Family.” Or it might describe July of 1932, when the Great Depression propelled St. Louis’s unemployment rate to 30 percent or more and brought class and racial inequality to a boil in a city where the two are impossible to untangle. (Viewed from the most recent summer of our discontent, in fact, the only thing dramatically separating 2020 from 1932 is the kind of once-a-century pandemic St. Louis more successfully managed in 1918-19.)
As it happened, the July events in question unfolded in the St. Louis of the early 1930s. They are a set piece in the most important book about the city published in years, Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States (2020), the source of almost all of the historical detail I have presented here. As Johnson’s title suggests, his book is pained and often brutal going. Like a Howard Zinn-ish People’s History written from the observation deck of the Gateway Arch, it is in part an atrocity exhibit of U.S. “racial capitalism” viewed from “the imperium of St. Louis,” a bloody parade of “genocide, removal, and the expropriation and control of land,” all “justified in the name of white supremacy.” Johnson, now a distinguished professor of history and African American Studies at Harvard, was born two hours west of the city, and finds himself heartbroken, after adolescent Sundays relishing the museums in Forest Park, by what he has learned of its “floridly racist” history. But it is plain, too, with his every grand, impassioned metaphor, that Johnson just cannot quit the locals who have never stopped trying to remake the place. His book paints the young Ferguson activists who put Black Lives Matter on the map, for example, as “legatees of a history of Black radicalism and direct action as measurelessly implacable as the flow of the rivers.” For Johnson, St. Louis is the overlooked confluence where “imperialism, racism, and capitalism have persistently entwined to corrupt the nation’s past”—and where the most creative bottom-up challenges to these interwoven forces have long been innovated, from freedom suits (e.g., Dred Scott’s in 1846) to sit-ins (St. Louisans began forcibly integrating downtown lunch counters in 1947, thirteen years before the Greensboro Four sat down at Woolworth’s). The historical interchangeability of the “July Riot”—was it 1932 or 2020?—thus reflects both the persistence of racial capitalist cleansing and the repeated disruption of this cleansing by everyday St. Louisans, folks thought backward on the coasts but regularly trained in avant-garde resistance, Black women often showing the way. In short, Johnson’s Gateway City is a two-sided heart of America, the twin pump that keeps both the best and worst of our national history flowing.
Just since June, St. Louis’s 2014 has become a basis of the country’s 2020—the latter still being born, but already a year of auspicious change in the movement for Black lives. Ferguson, the most dramatic twenty-first-century episode in the city’s long history of Black radicalism, is now seen as the progenitor of perhaps the most shaping chapter in American racial politics since the 1960s.
Moving from the center of American geography to the center of American history has its compensations. In spite of Johnson’s revulsion toward the city’s “pervasive exploitation,” The Broken Heart of America flatters St. Louis’s self-concept as a wrongly neglected hub of innovation. Yet this brand of centrality also comes at a cost: The maturation and legacy of the city’s inventions must be traced elsewhere. Until this summer, in fact, the season of George Floyd’s murder and the rebirth of Black Lives Matter, the promise once seen in the Ferguson moment seemed to have forsaken its hometown. There were modest changes and blue-ribbon panels of local importance in the immediate wake of 2014, of course, the governor of Missouri’s Ferguson Commission and President Obama’s Task Force on Twenty-First-Century Policing among them. But there was also systemic resistance to sweeping legal reform—the kind of maddeningly fragmentary resistance the collective structure of nearly ninety St. Louis municipalities was effectively designed to trigger. There was classic White backlash—running all the way to the anti-Ferguson branding of the Trump campaign in 2016—and an out-migration of young Black talent honed in the protests. A number of the Ferguson icons and organizers who stayed put launched promising careers as political reformers, but too many others met violent deaths, Edward Crawford included, enough to spark conspiracy theories amid an exploding St. Louis murder rate.
For all these painful, permanent losses, however, the national summer of George Floyd has swiftly remade the aftermath of the St. Louis summer of Michael Brown. Just since June, St. Louis’s 2014 has become a basis of the country’s 2020—the latter still being born, but already a year of auspicious change in the movement for Black lives. Ferguson, the most dramatic twenty-first-century episode in the city’s long history of Black radicalism, is now seen as the progenitor of perhaps the most shaping chapter in American racial politics since the 1960s. Somewhat surprisingly, it is Eric Holder, the Attorney General who ran the Justice Department as it investigated the Ferguson police, who has best captured the irony of this redemptive revision of St. Louis’s recent past. “They’re too young to be called it,” Holder admitted, but the Ferguson activists who once warned that “This ain’t your grandparents’ Civil Rights movement” have, with this summer’s massive protests, become “almost like the grandfathers” of the movement’s fresh echoes and achievements. Thanks to these brand-new ancestors, St. Louis time has been reset and, for the moment, along this part of the river, restored.
Editor’s Note: An edited version of this essay appeared in the November 2020 issue of Washington University magazine.