Q&A: In St. Louis, the Rev. Darryl Gray is 'praying with my feet'

'If we can be successful in St. Louis as Dr. King and the civil rights leaders were in Selma, it could change this country, as Selma did.' – The Rev. Darryl Gray, civil rights activist

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
The Rev. Darryl Gray, who has called St. Louis 'the new Selma,' has brought his experience from the original civil rights movement to the protests in St. Louis – some of which have been held at this intersection in the city's Central West End neighborhood.

The Rev. Darryl Gray, a prominent figure in the St. Louis protests with more than 40 years’ experience as a civil rights activist, talked with the Monitor’s Christa Case Bryant in November for our cover story, “Bridging black and white: How St. Louis residents are trying to surmount racial inequities post-Ferguson.” This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: You’ve called St. Louis the new Selma. Why?

Selma was a very peculiar place. It was hard. A lot of civil rights organizations did not want to go into Selma…. because people thought it was too hard to penetrate.

[St. Louis also] is going to be a very tough nut to crack.

If we can be successful in St. Louis as Dr. King and the civil rights leaders were in Selma, it could change this country, as Selma did. The success in Selma produced the Voting Rights Act. At the end of the day we have to produce legislation. We’re not going to change a lot of attitudes. We’re not going to change the way a lot of people believe or think about people of color. But we can legislate their behavior. That’s the difference.

Q: But some say new laws won’t make a difference until there’s a real shift in thought.

The laws end up conditioning people to shift their thought. And we always give a real simple example: the seatbelt law. For years we drove without seatbelts. We never thought about putting them on. Casualty after casualty, fatality after the fatality. Then all of a sudden somebody said, it’s the law. ... So we got a ticket for it and we got another ticket for it and then we got another ticket for it. It wasn’t the fact that we were flying out of the window. It was the tickets. It was the money. It was affecting our pocketbook. So when the laws start affecting our pocketbooks, it begins to condition us.

Q: Do you think that the moral and spiritual foundation of this movement is the same as the civil rights movement when it was led by Dr. King, or is it different today?

 [In the 1960s,] everything came through the church. It was the center of our community. In 2017, that’s not the case.

But the church still has the same strength in 2017 as it had in 1956. And that strength is, it is still an independent institution. That preachers and pastors have a) a moral obligation and b) a fiduciary obligation to be advocates not just for their congregations but for the community. And it is biblically mandated… When Jesus said, when you care for the least of these, you care for me. And do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And Luke 14, where it says the spirit of the Lord is upon me because it has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, it has sent me to proclaim freedom to the prisoner. A recovering of sight to the blind. And to set the oppressed fully free.

It is a Liberation Theology scripture. ... It spoke to the ministry of Jesus Christ, who did not confine himself to a pulpit. It spoke to the ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr., who did not confine himself to a pulpit or a place. And it’s my ministry. It’s my foundation. And so it is that scripture and the independence that we have, and the mandate that we have, that forces us out of the pulpit into the street.

Q: So what about, for example, Black Lives Matter? Is it also infused with these same sorts of ideas?

It depends on where you go. I think there are some parts in the country and some Black Lives Matter chapters that work hand in hand with black clergy. And I think that black leadership over the last three or four years have gone out of their way to connect with Black Lives Matter leadership…. And I think that we’ve done it out of necessity because we understand that post-Michael Brown’s death [black] leadership has been more focused around local leadership and not national leadership.

Q: How do you view the role of white allies within the St. Louis protest movement?

I support white allies 100 percent. I think that their value, particularly to this recent movement, has been critical. They have been fearless. They have been consistent. They have been totally committed. Because they have recognized that they have a responsibility to change society, because they have been the benefactors or beneficiaries to a culturally biased, racially insensitive society.

I always quote Scripture: To whom much is given much is required. And so I think that many of them have come to some personal and/or spiritual place where they’ve said, we have a responsibility to be part of the solution now. And they have provided financial resources. … They’ve just been soldiers in this fight standing toe to toe and placing themselves in harm’s way. And yielding to any leadership position.

The other thing is that they can better convey the message to white folk than black folk can…. Because when white folks had me come in they already know what I’m going to say, so the shield goes up…. But when white allies approach them, before they can put up the force field, it’s already been said. The other thing is that they’ve allowed themselves to be used as a buffer [between black activists and policemen in protests]. …  So, I’ve seen their contribution as invaluable. And I’m grateful.

Q: Are there any tensions? Because some white allies have said, we have to be careful that we’re not telling black people how to do this.

We wouldn’t let them anyway. No. I think that we’re confident enough in who we are, and capable enough … that we’re not to let anybody co-opt us. … And so while I understand the comment and I appreciate it, nobody has to worry about … any white allies or anyone else telling frontline protesters what to do. Frontline protesters are going to do what they think they should do. … There are those who ask us, when we look at the protests we see 80 percent white folks. We say, yeah, that is deliberate. Based upon the strategy that we discussed prior to the verdict [of policeman Jason Stockley on Sept. 15, 2017], our strategy was to utilize white allies in this first phase.

Q: What else does your strategy involve?

Depending upon how long this takes, there are different phases to this strategy, which I’m not at liberty to discuss. But the first phase, which is not a secret because we’ve been doing this, is an economic disruption.

The Bono concert was canceled. The Ed Sheeran concert was canceled. There have been many local events that have been canceled…. People don’t frequent places that they used to because they’re not going to come in town and spend the money because they don’t know what the protesters are going to show up at.

But also, now we’re looking at economic boycotts targeting specific businesses …. Dr. King made it very clear when you talk about the steps for nonviolent direct action, the first step is to gather information. Make sure you’re clear, if you’re going to target somebody or something … what they are doing in the community and what they are not doing? Do they have any lawsuits against them for discriminatory practices? How many people of color are they employing? How many people in upper management do they have? What is their history for upward mobility? What about on the board of directors – do they have people of color? What kind of community reinvestment Program do they have? Those are the questions that you ask.

And then you have to meet with them … to talk to them, to say, listen, this is why we have a problem. We want to give you an opportunity to say what you’re going to do to address this problem. Or we will have an aggressive boycott against you right now. We’re putting you on notice.

Q: Have you seen any signs of progress since Ferguson that give you hope?

[State Rep.] Bruce Franks, Jr. is one. He moved from protest to politics. And he understood that if we’re going to change society, we have to change the system of government. How government works. What government does. [Also,] Cori Bush, a protest/activist who said, I’m going to run for US Senate. I’m going to run for Congress because I believe that we can’t just operate in the streets. But we also have to operate in the halls of government.

I think people are a bit more aware post-Mike Brown on both sides. I say, a lot has changed, but then nothing has changed.

Q: You’re a protest leader and a moral figure in this movement, but you’re also a pastor. So how are you praying for the city of St. Louis?

I’m praying with my feet. You know why? Biblical scripture. Because faith without works is dead.... If I’m only going to be concerned with those in the sanctuary and not concerned about those who stand or lie quiet in the shadows of the steeple, then I may as well do something else.

Christ said, Go ye therefore into all the world. That was his mission. If I say that I want to be like Christ in my life, then I’ve got to ‘go ye therefore.’ And I can’t hide behind the stained-glass windows and the wooden pews. I’ve got to move beyond that and not be afraid. And so that’s where I’m at. It’s why I do what I do. And I’m unapologetic.

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