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A Day Of Remembrance

By The Honorable Wesley Saint Clair

Things were looking pretty good for me on Thursday, April 4th,1968--just another day in the life of an adolescent black male in Kansas City, Missouri. But the day which began as rather ordinary became a day that would define me for the rest of my life. As on most days, I was up early on Thursday getting ready to attend school. There were six people living in our house: my mother, my brother and I, and my mother’s best friend and her two children.

My mom’s friend was white and we were black, an unusual situation, especially in that the “friend” was actually my mother’s step sister, as we later came to believe. It appears that my grandmother, who had been a maid in a white physician's household, had had a child by that physician: my mother.

We were an economically challenged household, without many elements of a comfortable existence. Cars, dining out, and buying new clothes were not part of the model. My father had left the family basically destitute. I’m told he paid child support for all of one month after he left when I was 8 years old. Our wealth was based on non-tangibles: love, mutual support, encouragement, belief in self. These were derived from the adversities we faced and set the tone for our relationships with each other. Being the youngest meant that I often suffered the specialized attention that only younger siblings can receive from older brothers. But our bond continues to this day based upon a sense of love and enduring together the hardships that life sent our way.

Because money was so tight, I needed to work. After much discussion with my mother, I started at age 12 as a courtesy clerk at the local grocery store and later as a janitor for a friend. The child labor laws were, thankfully, from my perspective, not as strict or strictly enforced then, so stores were glad to have dependable people regardless of their age. And if nothing else, I was a dependable worker. I would always share my earnings with my mom, although the lion’s share went into my pocket. I always felt good about supplying my own pocket money and contributing all my expenses, whether for food, clothing or entertainment. I have worked ever since that first job at age 12.

Poverty can have a paralyzing impact and has now been determined and acknowledged to be an adverse childhood event. And we were painfully poor. We suffered several evictions in the course of my childhood and consistently lived in substandard conditions. But we had great wealth in the spiritual realm that has supported each of us in the course of our lives.

On that fateful Thursday in April 1968, I was a junior in high school, marking time until graduation. I knew I wanted to attend college, but it was unclear which college would accept me and provide the financial support I needed. Earlier in the school year I had been drawn to the possibility of living abroad as a foreign exchange student. The sticking point was that most programs required that your household would also operate as a host family for a student to come to the United States.

Given our housing situation, that was not really an option, but my mother insisted that I continue to look into programs that did not have the reciprocal requirement. I was finally directed to American Field Service, which did not have that requirement but rather had a substantial financial expectation to offset expenses. Again, with the encouragement of my mother and her insistence that the good Lord would find a way for me to participate if that in fact was my goal, I applied.

In April I learned that I had been accepted, most likely into their yearlong program rather than the more usual summer program, but the location had yet to be determined. So I had a lot to look forward to.

I was employed after school at this time as a page at the Kansas City Library, reshelving books, making new entry cards for the Dewey decimal system, and performing general cleanup. That evening while I was putting books away, I was approached by a staff member with news of the assassination of Martin Luther King.

We were all called into the staff lounge and informed of the tragedy. I felt dumbfounded and angry. I felt a surge of hatred for the situation that led to this killing. It was beyond my imagination that someone would kill such a man of peace, though over the years black leaders had been subject to white terrorism and assassination.

My brother owned the only car in the household, but he worked several jobs and was unavailable to drive me home from the library that evening so, as usual, I took the bus. Already the black community was in an uproar. There were hundreds of people in the street, and the violence became more pronounced as I got closer to home. City officials had determined that unrest in the downtown corridor would not be allowed but rioting in the black community would be tolerated. The police and national guard had marked off areas into which people were not allowed to enter, with a heavy police presence downtown and very few in my neighborhood.

As I got closer to home I could see cars on fire and businesses with broken windows and merchandise being “liberated,” and I momentarily considered joining the fray. I could use a new radio for my upcoming trip, or a new jacket. Poor as we were, I could use just about anything.

I got off the bus and began to watch the action. There were people of all ages and sexes going into the stores and coming out with merchandise. There were bands of young people looting. I could see police down the street watching the action but not moving in. Just watching.

It occurred to me then that the protests I was seeing were not about obtaining material goods but were really the boiling up of historical frustrations concerning the absence of opportunity that existed in the black community of Kansas City, about the lack of resources, whether for schools or businesses or housing, that had been systematically denied to a group of people for many decades based solely on the color of their skin. I doubt whether many of the participants could have articulated more than a gut feeling of unfairness that permeated the area or spoken to the concepts of institutionalized racism, or housing discrimination. They would not have been ready to verbalize the problems of under- and unemployment, the absence of summer job opportunities, the lack of educational opportunities, or access to facilities like pools and parks, but without a doubt each of them could have cited a personal experience that let them know racism was alive and well in Missouri and especially in Kansas City.

I knew I could join the chaos and would likely not be caught, but it became more than that for me. I wondered how I could represent what this wonderful, intelligent, inspirational leader had meant to me in a fashion that respected what he had done not only for this country and for me but for the world as a whole. This would remain a touchstone for the rest of my life. I didn't realize it then, but the uproar following the death of Dr. King was one of the events that contributed to my having a sense of the greater need of community versus individual desires.

The next day, Friday, the tension at school was extreme. We could talk about nothing but the death of Dr. King, both in first-period homeroom class and in the assembly that was held later in the day. Paseo High was an urban school with a student body that was seventy percent black.

Tensions were high throughout the city, too. Law enforcement gave clear warnings they would not tolerate the widespread civil unrest. Kansas City was one of thirty-seven urban areas where racial tensions boiled over. Nine people were killed in the riots, which escalated over a nine-day period. Schools were closed and demonstrations were held in many neighborhoods. Although I went to work on several of those days, I mostly stayed close to home, joining with peaceful demonstrations and celebrations of the life and times of Dr. King. In June of that year, I participated in the Poor People's march on Washington DC, which had been one of Dr. King’s next planned activities. With his inspiration, I felt increasingly determined to make the most of my education and my life. Soon one of my applications for foreign study bore fruit, and I was able to spend my senior year in Denmark.

As I matured, the events of April 1968 developed into an insight, an ability to look for the greater good of the community, oftentimes in the midst of great community turmoil. In the recent past, I found myself at the center of a discussion regarding the building of a juvenile detention facility which was to be part of a new court complex. As chief Judge of Juvenile court, I was designated as the spokesperson for the court. The topic generated an enormous amount of spirited debate among community and institutional players (court, probation, prosecution, and detention). Whereas the detention portion accounted for approximately 20% of the project, this focus distracted attention from what the remaining 80% would be addressing, namely, the rest of the civil practice surrounding juvenile legal process.

The debate went on for seven years, from the levy process to obtain funding to the eventual construction of the building and the rest of the physical plant. The community constantly agitated for a reevaluation of the necessity of the building and then demanded the establishment of a new paradigm regarding the activities that would take place inside the building. As spokesman for the court, I was faced with the monumental moral dilemma of having to defend an institution that was and is the gateway to mass incarceration that is so widespread in our community. I was under scrutiny the entire time. It was an intense learning experience.

During my first years at juvenile court, I was introduced to The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. This epoch-making book showed me all too clearly that I had been complicit in the maintenance of a systematic marginalization of portions of our communities based solely on race, victimizing black and brown children and their families. I saw for the first time that I must own up to behaviors of mine that had helped make this pernicious system work so efficiently. Within a few months of coming to juvenile court it became clear to me that the system was and is failing the children and families who are forced to enter it, and thus it is failing our community as a whole.

In the course of this period of self-reflection, I recalled Dr. King’s sacrifice and commitment and what a hero and role model he was and is for our community. I moved away from the comfortable place of privilege that being a judge gives one in our society. I saw that, if I rose to the status of a senior judge, I would be able to coast along, taking assignments that would be more intellectually challenging but not so emotionally draining. Instead, I chose to remain in a place that had the greatest opportunity to effectuate actual change--change that might be of a magnitude to influence the society as a whole.

As I look back at the events of that Thursday, April 4th,1968, I can appreciate their monumental impact. Thereafter, I found myself not so focused on my personal wants or desires. I found that I had an ability to look into a chaotic situation and maintain a sense of integrity, not simply to follow the path of least resistance and go with the flow but rather to maintain a sense of commitment and to acknowledge the existence of greater issues that transcend my personal goals or immediate needs.

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