JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — As the designated Black History Month is coming to a close, lawmakers gathered to remind Missourians learning from the past is not confined to one month and neither are the strides they are planning to make.
Members of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus held a press conference on Monday where they discussed Black History Month and related legislation.
“Although February is the designated month to honor those heroes, they fought for justice all year round,” said Rep. Steven Roberts, Chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. “Black history must be remembered every day because black history is made every day.”
And those lawmakers are looking to make some history themselves during the legislative session. They are looking to end the disparities in the criminal justice system.
“We can go through a whole list of ways in which African Americans were treated very differently by our criminal justice system and are today,” said Rep. Shamed Dogan. “I am proud as chair of the special committee on criminal justice to be a part of working with my colleagues in the Black Caucus as well as the rest of the House of Representatives in the legislature in trying to rectify some of those injustices and make our justice system more perfect.”
They are looking to make changes to mandatory minimum sentences, make it easier for people coming out of the system to become productive members of society, updating police accountability statutes, prosecutorial diversion programs, and other reforms that would improve Missouri’s criminal justice system.
Dogan noted that while there has been some pushback in previous years on police accountability measures, he is optimistic that there are a few changes that may make it further this year than ever before.
“I think that the prospects for police accountability are better than they have been in several years. It is something where we have been very pro-police…and so I think the conversation is moving in a direction where we recognize that we support and respect our police and one way to do that is to improve police-community relations by passing police accountability legislation,” said Dogan.
One piece of legislation is requiring independent investigations whenever there is an officer involved death. The Republican lawmaker pointed to a statewide poll that indicated 75 percent of Missourians are in support such legislation. There is also a measure introduced, called the John Ashcroft Fourth Amendment Affirmation Act, which would add penalties for racial profiling.
The strides they are making today are because of the contributions of those before them and the rights they fought for.
Rep. Alan Green shared a little about Ira Cooper, the first African-American sergeant on the St. Louis force in 1923 and the first black lieutenant in 1930.
When Cooper joined the police force in the early twentieth century, he was not allowed to wear the uniform nor was he able to arrest someone who was white. He was often called upon to solve cases that white detectives could not.
Rep. Ashley Manlove, vice-chair of the black caucus, noted that several modern conveniences are accredited to black individuals. Thermostats to automatic elevator doors to three-color stop lights were all invented by African-Americans, she said.
“When you don’t have diversity and inclusion in the boardroom, by the time it makes it to our living rooms, it is too late,” said Rep. Tommie Pierson, Jr. “We have to be about heightening the importance of diversity and inclusion.”
A member of the House Budget Committee, Pierson said that not a single person who made a presentation to the committee was African-American. A variety of elected officials, department heads, deputy directors, analysts, and more have made presentations on the $29 billion budget and none have been African-American, Pierson noted.
“Black History Month cannot just look backwards. Black History Month cannot just be about celebrating things that have happened in the past,” said Pierson. “Black History Month has to be about educating us so that we can be better as we move forward.”
Alisha Shurr is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine. She joined the Missouri Times in January 2018 after working as a copy editor for her hometown newspaper in Southern Oregon. Alisha is a graduate of Kansas State University. Contact Alisha at firstname.lastname@example.org.