Rep. John Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement, said Sunday that the Ferguson police force’s low single-digit number of black officers is “shameful” and a “disgrace.”
“It’s a disgrace that in a city that’s 78 percent African American to have only three” African-American police officers on the city’s force, he told NBC’s "Meet the Press" on Sunday.
“This is shameful,” he added. “... We must teach people the ways of peace and nonviolence, but we cannot have peace and nonviolence without justice.”
The Georgia Democrat marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was beaten by state troopers in Selma, Ala., after leading a peaceful protest across a bridge. He suffered a skull fracture, and a scar from the incident is still visible.
“The police and the mayor and other local officials have a moral obligation to apologize to the community,” he said.
Quoting King, he added: “We’ve got to learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we’re going to die together as fools.”
Lewis made the comments after nearly a week of violent clashes between protesters and police sparked by a Ferguson police officer’s slaying of unarmed teen Michael Brown.
Late in the week Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon put the state highway patrol in charge of managing the protests after the Ferguson police led a military-style response to the protests and looting involving armored vehicles, tear gas and the arrests of two journalists covering the turmoil in the St. Louis suburb.
Lawmakers across the political spectrum have seized on the startling scenes of heavily armed police clashing with protesters in Ferguson this week to question why the federal government has given police departments across the country $4.3 billion in military-style weapons and equipment since 1997.
Asked about the so-called militarization of the police, Lewis said that watching the video footage out of Ferguson “looked like it was [taking place] in Baghdad or another war-torn zone.”
“Ferguson is part of the United States of America,” he said. “People have a right to engage in protests and non-violent action.”