by | Sep 4, 1994 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

“Hey, aren’t you Rosa Parks?”

It was a sentence she had heard a million times before, usually followed by a handshake, a hug, and congratulations for her historic deeds. Now she was in a red bathrobe, it was nighttime, and she had come downstairs to find this strange man in her home. Still, there had never been any evil — and it had been nearly 40 years — that followed when a fellow black American said, “Hey, aren’t you Rosa Parks?”

So Rosa Parks answered, “Yes.”

The man took her money, whacked her in the face, whacked her in the chest, and left.

Once a symbol, twice a symbol. When Parks refused to give her seat to a white passenger on an Alabama bus in 1955, she emblamatized the civil rights movement: a simple quest for dignity by blacks in a white society.

Now, at 81, she emblamatizes something else: a simple quest for dignity by blacks in their own community, by old people in a young world, by the nonviolent in a violent place.

Once a symbol, twice a symbol. There are those who wish that Parks’ assailant had been white, some guy in a sheet and hood. That would have been easy. Draw the old lines. The oppressed vs. the oppressor.

But these are not the old lines. Rosa Parks’ accused attacker was a 28-year-old black male who had the right to vote, the right to education, the right to work and to legal action against discrimination. Had he tried to make his life better, he’d have found scholarships available because of his race, and jobs designated for minority hires only. All these things exist largely because of the woman he whacked.

It didn’t matter. He was hooked on drugs, he wanted money, and the only thing that might have stopped him was something he didn’t have.


Which, ironically, is what Rosa Parks has always been about. Fearing their own

Last January, the Rev. Jesse Jackson hosted a conference in Washington. The subject was crime. Black-on-black crime. The numbers on this are depressing, beginning with the fact that half the murder victims in this country are African-American.

“Fratricide is no THREAT to the status quo!” Jackson bellowed. “If the oppressed descend into self-destruction, the oppressor will permit it. . . .

“The power will not come from the WHITE House or the COURTHOUSE, but from YOUR house and MY house!”

These houses, sadly, include many in cities like Detroit, Washington and Atlanta, houses that are barred and double- locked, with handguns next to beds. The people inside do not fear rich white men banging down their door. They fear their own. Jackson was right about who’s going to fix this. Not the status quo — meaning the comfortable majority. They can stay out of the deadly loop.

This is the loop. Crime is tied to poverty. Poverty is tied to education. Education to parents. Parents to values — staying in school, avoiding drugs, being there for your kids, and yes, respecting others enough not to harm them. Who is teaching these things?

As Parks’ attack made headlines in Detroit, in Chicago, an 11-year-old black youth killed a 14-year-old black girl as part of a gang initiation rite. Three days later, the boy was killed by his own gang members. Two shots. Back of the head. The suspects are ages 16 and 14. The gang’s name: Black Disciples.

We are losing our most prized possessions. They are being gunned down by each other. Steer children straight

Let’s face it. An 11-year-old is not inherently evil. He is what he is taught. The one in Chicago was taken from his mother at age 3, after police found cigarette burns and whip marks on his body. Where can that lead?

The Chicago murders — and the Parks case — show the depths to which people sink without alternatives. And it should make critics think twice about opposing parts of the new crime bill that spend money for community services and projects, rather than jails. Think of that 11-year-old. If he could be taught something so incredible as cold-blooded murder, imagine the possibilities if steered in the right direction.

We are in this together. White citizens should feel no satisfaction here.

Violence is violence; it will eat us all one day. Still, as Jackson said, black-on-black crime must ultimately be addressed by the black community. In a city where the mayor and police chief are both black, it is hard to blame crime on discrimination.

No. More and more, crime is about respect — or the lack of it — for life, for community, for the old and defenseless. For yourself. Rosa Parks was only seeking respect when she refused to move on that bus; that led to the most important social action of our time. Now, with puffy bruises on her aged body, we can only hope that her magic as a symbol is not gone. Another cause awaits.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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