Code Switch
10:34 am
Thu August 21, 2014

An Officer Shot A Black Teen, And St. Louis Rioted — In 1962

Amid the flurry of coverage about Michael Brown's death and the reaction in Ferguson, Mo., journalists have been unpacking St. Louis' long, tense history of racial unrest. In some of these stories, the parallels between the events of years past and those of the past few weeks are striking.

There aren't many clear details surrounding Donnell Dortch's death on Sept. 23, 1962 — at least, not from the newspapers that wrote about it.

It was 11:40 a.m. on a Sunday. Donnell Dortch was driving a car in Kinloch, the predominantly black St. Louis suburb where he and his family lived. And, as United Press International told the story, at some point in the 19-year-old's drive, a black police officer named Israel Mason stopped Dortch, who was also black.

This is where the details get fuzzy.

The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, a small Missouri newspaper, reported that the 74-year-old Mason tried to give Dortch a "traffic warrant" for careless and reckless driving. UPI described Dortch's driving as "drag racing," though no other contemporary newspapers mentioned this detail.

Dortch refused the warrant. It's hard to glean why or how he refused it, but UPI wrote — very pointedly — that he did. As the Constitution-Tribune described it, "Officer Mason said he and Dortch wrestled for his pistol while the policeman was trying to free it from his holster."

Then, the officer said, the pistol discharged by accident.

Here the details get fuzzier.

According to the county coroner, three witnesses recounted seeing a starkly different string of events, one without accidents, with what seemed like more intention.

"According to the witnesses," the Constitution-Tribune writes, "Mason pulled Dortch from his car and struck the youth twice with the revolver. Then Mason stepped back five feet and fired, the witnesses said."

Donnell Dortch's death certificate tells the rest of his story with much more certainty and accuracy than the media's reports. As was common with very public, very contentious deaths, the wire services and local newspapers focused more on the protests and riots that followed Dortch's killing than on the death itself — or the altercation leading up to it.

Hours after his run-in with the police, Dortch died in a county hospital in Clayton, Mo., bleeding profusely from where a bullet, or bullets — it wasn't made clear how many — pierced his stomach. He was unmarried, survived by his father, Lonnie Dortch, and his mother, Mable Marable Dortch.

Kinloch exploded with anxiety and protest.

UPI describes Kinloch as a small, 6,500-person town, "one of several predominantly Negro suburbs in the St. Louis area which date back to Civil War days." (For some comparison, Kinloch, which shares a border with Ferguson, had about 298 residents during the 2010 U.S. Census — most of whom were black.)

Crowds of hundreds assembled before Kinloch's city hall in the days after Dortch's death, chanting "We want Mason! We Want Mason!" (The police officer was suspended from his post and eventually resigned.)

Some people were setting the town ablaze, razing an elementary school and a string of empty houses in the process, trying to light the police chief's new home on fire. (UPI writes that the police chief, "acting on a hunch, drove home, discovered the blaze and extinguished it himself.") The same UPI article reports that there were two shotgun blasts fired into the Kinloch police station, and that a bomb threat was called into a high school. Residents carried signs, inscribed with phrases like "Was Murder Necessary?" and "How Much Training Have Our Officers Had?" and "Will Our Son Be Next?" One resident who spoke to the UPI writer described the town police as "Kinloch cowboys" and "village police," and said that they wanted the "St. Louis county police to protect the area."

Local officials stepped up their reaction. Almost a hundred county and town police were ordered to man Kinloch's streets and were equipped, according to UPI, with machine guns and police dogs. Fifty people were rounded up and questioned about the violence that had unfolded following Dortch's death. Missouri Gov. John Dalton assured folks that he'd do whatever necessary to "preserve the peace." He consulted with the Missouri highway patrol, and debated whether to send in the National Guard.

Kinloch's mayor, Clarence Lee, enacted a curfew and denied that this situation — the hordes of people rioting in the streets, the violence — stemmed from any sort of racial tension. It was, UPI quotes him saying, "wholly a problem of police enforcement, resulting in a misunderstanding between the citizens and the police."

The UPI account, like so many from that era, leaves it at that.

How History Was Buried In The Press

Back in the mid-1900s, the civil rights movement was just gaining momentum, and there was a spate of stories similar to Donnell Dortch's that unfolded like his, that were retold like his. It seems obvious now, looking back 50 years, that this sort of unrest was ubiquitous. But did it feel that way then?

I came across Dortch's story when doing a more general flick through newspaper archives from 1950 to 1970. There were a handful of headlines in these newspapers related to racial discord, mostly clustered together in one section dedicated to that type of coverage, like: "Racial Clash" and "Negro Picket Slugged at Black Muslim Rally" and "Race Hikers Choose Jail Over Bonds."

The AP headline "8 Fires Set In Negro Suburb Of St. Louis After Shooting" stood out. Not just because of the story's physical proximity to what we're watching unfold today, but also because of its brevity. It was followed by four short paragraphs about a string of fires and violence in Kinloch, perhaps triggered by the death of a black teen.

(The AP wrote, as if explanation enough, that "The Negro community has been the scene of violence since an elderly policeman killed a young man Sunday.")

The reporters and newspapers that most closely covered these stories so tangled with race and segregation were mostly black, mostly in Southern cities. It was easy for the local press to bury and avoid news that was uncomfortable.

Last year, NPR's Audie Cornish traveled to Alabama and spoke with Hank Klibanoff, co-author of The Race Beat. They talked about how the civil rights movement was covered in Birmingham — how differently Northern and Southern newspapers wrote about the strife. ("The South cannot help over time but see itself in the coverage. And over time, that is a picture that the South was not comfortable with," Klibanoff told Cornish about the lack of coverage in Southern media outlets. "No one likes to see themselves screaming and yelling and looking hideous and squaring off as a mob against one black person.")

Klibanoff and his co-author, Gene Roberts, wrote about the role that the national American media played in reporting about the civil rights movement. Ultimately, they write in The Race Beat, "the mainstream press — the white press — would have to discover racial discrimination and write about it so candidly and so repeatedly that white Americans outside the South could no longer look the other way."

Today, social media makes it so that these stories are harder to ignore, harder to avoid. Folks on Twitter — journalists and activists — who might not have gotten attention in an earlier era, are elevating these stories to a national level, and at times becoming intertwined with these narratives. It's hard to look the other way when a hashtag is trending nationwide.

But the stream of information coming through social media channels carries a whole other set of questions. Amid a flood of news about Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson, sometimes it can still be hard to know what, exactly, we're seeing. It's the "tick tock," Klibanoff tells me — the specifics of who said what and what happened — that can get missed or muddied in the streams of tweets, in the constant flow of network news. "We're numbed by the barrage of news sources," he says.

The tiny amount of surviving coverage about Donnell Dortch leaves us with many questions about what happened. Yet even now — despite hundreds of reporters having descended on Ferguson, Mo., scouring for details on a similar St. Louis death — it's still difficult to know what we're seeing and missing. What most can agree on is this:

It was about noon on a Saturday. Michael Brown was walking in Ferguson, the predominantly black St. Louis suburb where he and his family lived. And as news outlets tell the story, at some point in the 18-year-old's walk, a white police officer named Darren Wilson stopped Brown, who was black.

This is where the details get fuzzy.

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