What changed for me after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson.
Confession: This past year, I realized that I reacted to news stories about fatal encounters with police with a fleeting dismay. I saw them as tragic or appalling stories—sometimes as examples of systemic problems in our culture, an abstract observation—but still they felt unrelated to me. I rarely went looking for more about any one story. That changed when Michael Brown died in a barrage of bullets fired by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August.
What changed was my discovery, in the chaotic aftermath of Brown’s death, that I did not understand what was happening. I began looking for first-person accounts from people in Ferguson. I began listening intently to what black commentators and journalists especially had to say not just about Brown’s death, but also about the patterns they saw in it.
My dismay deepened. It’s one thing to acknowledge that poverty, incarceration, and unemployment rates are higher for people of color, or that young black men are more likely to experience police harassment. It’s another thing to be emotionally and spiritually unsettled by the human suffering these statistics quantify. I can’t shake the awareness that the inattention and disengagement of well-meaning people like me allows profound injustices to go on. So I am making myself listen, I am welcoming my new discomfort, and I am looking for ways to engage.
In the new film Selma (reviewed by John Buehrens and Aisha Hauser; see pages 49 and 50), one harrowing scene shows the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young black man, by an Alabama state trooper. The scene is remarkably faithful to the historical record, which struck me first, but then the film shows the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackson’s grandfather grieving together—a long, poignant scene that shows what news stories about the victims of police shootings rarely show: the wrenching loss.
Our Winter 2014 issue retold the story of UU responses to King’s call to Selma in 1965. This issue asks where we are being called today. Cornel West challenges us to see the radicalism of King’s vision (page 24). UUs respond to the Black Lives Matter movement in essays by Nancy McDonald Ladd (page 22), Kenny Wiley, Barbara Gadon, Taquiena Boston, and Rosemary Bray McNatt (page 30). Elaine McArdle and I will be in Selma in early March to cover the 50th anniversary events that are drawing several hundred UUs (see uuworld.org).
We welcome two new members of our staff (both third-generation UUs): production assistant Sarah Hickok, who attends the UU Area Church in Sherborn, Massachusetts, with her family, and senior editor Kenny Wiley, who also serves as director of faith formation at Prairie UU Church in Parker, Colorado.
This article appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of UU World (page 3).
Please note: newsletter on hiatus
Christopher L. Walton was the editor of UU World and director of the UUA’s Periodicals staff group until June 2021. He holds degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Utah.