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For The First Time, NAACP Issues Travel Advisory For Missouri

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Three years ago this week, Ferguson, Mo., erupted in protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer. Racial tensions still reverberate in Missouri. Just recently, the local NAACP chapter issued a travel advisory, saying travelers should show extreme caution in the state. Peggy Lowe of member station KQED reports on what led to the warning.

PEGGY LOWE, BYLINE: Michelle Tyrene Johnson is looking at Facebook, scrolling back to when she posted news about the national NAACP supporting a travel advisory in a single state for the first time.

MICHELLE TYRENE JOHNSON: My comment with this is I have always had the policy that I don't travel in Missouri at night unless I'm on I-70 because parts of the state are just that openly racist.

LOWE: Johnson is a Kansas City playwright and diversity consultant. Her black friends agreed with her Facebook post and said they follow similar travel cautions. But her white friends' comments were very different.

JOHNSON: White people are going with this travel advisory - oh, my God, this still happens? Black people are going, why is the travel advisory just in Missouri, and why just now?

LOWE: Just now because of passage of a state law this spring that makes discrimination lawsuits harder to win, including exempting state employees from whistleblower laws and limiting monetary damages. Rod Chapel heads the Missouri NAACP, the group that issued the travel advisory.

ROD CHAPEL: All I can say is it was mostly desperation.

LOWE: Chapel says while the law triggered the advisory, the sentiment has been brewing for some time. He cites several things - racial incidents at the University of Missouri, a state report that says black drivers are 75 percent more likely to get pulled over than white drivers and the death of an African-American man in a jail in a small county in southeastern Missouri.

CHAPEL: It was just kind of - are we safe, you know? I might as well be in Beirut on some days.

LOWE: The travel industry here has been slow to react and appears to be treading lightly on a sensitive subject. Chuck Martin of the Missouri Travel Council says his group supports diversity in all 50 states and feels unfairly singled out.

CHUCK MARTIN: Instilling fear in discouraging people of color from traveling only to Missouri directly and negatively impacts people who make their livelihoods working in our travel and tourism industry.

LOWE: In May, the ACLU issued a travel advisory for Texas, and tourism boycotts have been used before. Pamela Oliver is a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She says this advisory combines two tactics that have been successful in the past.

PAMELA OLIVER: It seems like it's a new way to call for a tourism boycott but in a way that frames the reasoning for it in a different way.

LOWE: Some wondered whether the advisory offered the nation's oldest black civil rights group increased attention and relevance during a time that the Black Lives Matter movement is front and center. But to those who call it a publicity stunt, Oliver says...

OLIVER: Like, how social movement tactics work is through media coverage. That's the point.

LOWE: Michelle Tyrene Johnson just had her new play read at the National Black Theatre in New York. It was inspired by the "Green Book," an annual guide that reported to African-American travelers safe places to stay and eat during the Jim Crow era - any differences today?

JOHNSON: Yes, legally I can go to any hotel in the state of Missouri that I want to stay in. But that doesn't mean I'm going to feel comfortable or even be safe.

LOWE: Johnson's play is set to be read again in the Kansas City area next month just a few days before the Missouri NAACP meets in Springfield to discuss its next move. For NPR News, I'm Peggy Lowe in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.