FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) — A surge of voters helped alter the racial makeup of the Ferguson City Council, and observers said Wednesday that the change creates a new energy in a community trying to find its way after months of turmoil following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
More than 29 percent of Ferguson voters — double the percentage from the April 2014 election — went to the polls Tuesday and elected three new City Council members, including two blacks. That means half of the six-member council will now be African-American. The lone black incumbent councilman was not up for re-election. The mayor is white.
The percentage of elected blacks still falls short of the St. Louis suburb's racial makeup; two-thirds of Ferguson's 21,000 residents are black. Still, to residents and observers, it's a new start.
"I think (voters) understood very clearly that the eyes of the world were watching, and the vote was really the only way to bring substantive change," said community activist John Gaskin, a member of the national NAACP Board of Directors.
It was the first municipal election in Ferguson since Brown, an unarmed, black 18-year-old, was killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson last August. The shooting led to sometimes violent protests and spawned a national "Black Lives Matter" movement calling for changes in how police deal with minorities.
A St. Louis County grand jury and the U.S. Justice Department declined to prosecute Wilson, who resigned in November. But the Justice Department last month released a scathing report citing racial bias and profiling in the Ferguson Police Department and a profit-driven municipal court system that frequently targets black residents.
Several city officials resigned following the review, including the city manager, police chief and municipal judge. The municipal court clerk was fired for racist emails.
The new City Council will sign off on the replacements. It will work with the Justice Department to ensure that problems are corrected.
New council members say they're up to the task.
"Our community — we've been through a lot," said Wesley Bell, a 40-year-old black man elected in the 3rd Ward, which includes the Canfield Green apartment complex, where Brown was killed. "This community came together in record numbers to make sure our voices were heard. When you have a community engaged, the sky is the limit."
Turnout was aided by a strong push from volunteers, both local and national. Labor unions, activist groups and Working Family Party, a leading voice of the left that helped elect New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio last year, went door to door and worked phone banks urging people to vote.
"When we talked to voters about the opportunity we have to end a broken and racially biased justice system, people felt like there was really something worth going out to vote for," activist Reginald Rounds said.
Saint Louis University political science professor Ken Warren said the turnout was particularly impressive because he had previously sensed a defeatist attitude among many black residents in Ferguson.
"They thought, 'We can't win. It's a good old boy system,'" Warren said. "Now, they have organized with the help of outsiders, and they ended up electing two blacks to the City Council."
Warren believes the change could fuel renewed political activism among blacks who live in Ferguson.
"I think it bodes well for the future," he said.
Newly elected 2nd Ward Councilman Brian Fletcher, 55, who is white, agreed.
"The fact that we have a council that has three African-Americans — it's just wonderful, a new beginning for the city," said Fletcher, a former two-term mayor in Ferguson.
Ella Jones, a 60-year-old black woman, defeated three other candidates — one black and two white — in the 1st Ward.
Resident Hudson Ward encouraged the new council to seize its opportunity.
"All the protest and all the looting and everything, let that be a wake-up call," Ward said. "Change, to me, is giving our kids the opportunity to grow up in a peaceful community where everyone gets along."
Associated Press reporter Alex Sanz contributed to this report from Ferguson.