White St. Louis area residents work to improve race relations

ST. LOUIS -- Just as the killing of Michael Brown inflamed racial tensions, some want to turn the tragedy into an opportunity to calm them -- and improve relations between blacks and whites.

Sheila Merrell is part of "Witnessing Whiteness," a group of white residents hoping to better understand the black-white divide in the St. Louis area.

"If these were our white sons being stopped like this, that would not be tolerated," Merrell says. "It's like a Rosa Parks moment. This cannot continue. This cannot be whitewashed."

"I think by having a group that's just white, we can ask what people may consider the dumb questions," group Mary Ferguson says. "We can say things that we're not sure how it would sound to someone. It could sound racist."

The group has been meeting for the last four years, but their questions have become more important in the months since Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death by white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.

Bill Gilbert has been here from the beginning. When asked what he thinks about Mayor James Knowles saying there's "not a racial divide in the city of Ferguson," Gilbert responds, "He's crazy. The whole region has a race problem."

When asked if he can understand why blacks are so angry, Gilbert says, "No I don't -- I don't think I can really understand. I can't walk in their shoes so I don't know that I totally understand it, but I hear it and I am learning more and more."

Members of the group have joined the protests to keep the peace through candid dialogue and have attracted newcomers, like Mary Densmore.

"Things are ready to change, things are ready to move forward, and I think this is a part of it," Densmore says. "By us getting together as white people, and talking about this, this is our small step."

  • Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is an award-winning CBS News correspondent based in New York, reporting for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. Her work regularly appears on the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley", "CBS This Morning" and "CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood". She joined CBS News in 2004.