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Where the Flames of Righteous Anger Burned

Ferguson Empowerment Center rises

Marc H. Morial | 8/16/2017, 5:10 p.m.
Three years ago this month, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, fatally shot an unarmed, black 18-year-old named Michael Brown. ...
Michael Brown Sr. reads a memorial plaque that honors the life of his son at a Michael Brown memorial bench outside the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center. Carolina Hidalgo/ St. Louis Public Radio

Three years ago this month, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, fatally shot an unarmed, black 18-year-old named Michael Brown. The anger and unrest sparked by that shooting came to be symbolized by the image of a burning convenience store on West Florissant Avenue. And it presented one of the greatest challenges of his career for Michael McMillan, who’d been appointed President and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis just a year before.

Last month, hope rose from the ashes as Michael McMillan and I opened the National Urban League Conference with the dedication of the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, built upon the foundation of that convenience store.

I could not have imagined a more appropriate way to mark the opening of the National Urban League Conference, or an event more representative of the work of the Urban League Movement.

After Michael Brown’s tragic death, activists and advocates from across the nation, activists and advocates converged upon Ferguson, rightly and justly bringing the eyes and ears of America to focus on a violent injustice. When the marchers and the protestors had moved on, it was the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, under McMillan’s outstanding leadership, who went to work, literally building upon that foundation.

Where once the flames of righteous anger burned, lives will be transformed.

The building is shared by the Salvation Army and the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, and will house the Urban League’s Save Our Sons program, is one of the most successful job placement initiatives anywhere in the nation. While in St. Louis, I had the pleasure to meet Willard Donlow Jr.

A little over a year ago, the 35-year-old found himself in a deep depression. A single father, newly divorced, he had lost his job. He was praying for a way out. And his prayer was answered. Through Save Our Sons, he learned how to find a job and keep a job. He learned new computer skills, how to craft a resume, how to network, and how to present yourself in the right manner at an interview.

Just three days after completing the program, he was offers a job, and he's hard at work redeveloping abandoned buildings here in St Louis. Join me in congratulating Willard Dunlow.

Lives are being transformed.

As part of the opening ceremonies, we dedicated a memorial to Michael Brown. The concrete slab into which a bench and plaque are set is flecked with pink, orange and yellow. These colors are the shreds of 100 stuffed animals, left as part of a makeshift memorial in the middle of the street where Brown died. The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis kept the offerings in storage when the street had to be cleared.

The plaque reads, “This bench and decorative concrete base commemorate the social justice, change and movement towards a more just society that came about after his death. This base contains pieces of his memorial in the Canfield Green Apartments complex brought by people from all over the world.”

The Ferguson Empowerment Center stands as a tribute to the Urban League Movement’s mission to create a more just society, and the young men whose lives will be transformed there will be a testament to that mission.

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Marc H. Morial, CEO of the National Urban League, the nation's largest civil rights organization.

Marc H. Morial is president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League