Credit: Keerthivasan Rajamani/keerth on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
(WOMENSENEWS)–Rosa Parks‘ most historic hour may have occurred on the bus in December 1955 but a moment that perhaps revealed more of her strength of character came 40 years later.
On Aug. 30, 1994, at the age of 81, Parks was mugged in her own home by a young black man, Joseph Skipper. Skipper broke down her back door and then claimed he had chased away an intruder. He asked for a tip. When Parks went upstairs to get her pocketbook, he followed her. She gave him the $3 he initially asked for, but he demanded more. When she refused, he proceeded to hit her.
“I tried to defend myself and grabbed his shirt,” she explained. “Even at 81 years of age, I felt it was my right to defend myself.”
He hit her again, punching her in the face and shaking her hard, and threatened to hurt her further. She relented and gave him all her money–$103. Hurt and badly shaken, she called Elaine Steele who lived across the street and had become a key source of support. Steele called the police who took 50 minutes to arrive. Meanwhile, the word went out that someone had mugged Parks.
“All of the thugs on the Westside went looking for him,” Ed Vaughn recalled, “and they beat the hell out of him.”
Commentators seized on the news of Parks’ assault to bemoan the decline of a new generation of black youth. “Things are not likely to get much worse,” lamented liberal New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. “We are in the dark night of the post-civil rights era. The wars against segregation have been won, but we are lost. With the violence and degradation into which so many of our people have fallen, we have disgraced the legacy of Rosa Parks.”
The editors of the Detroit Free Press similarly intoned, “It is impossible to escape the cruel irony of the attack on Rosa Parks, beaten and robbed in her Detroit home Tuesday night by an assailant described as an African American male. How could the woman credited with sparking the nation’s civil rights movement to obtain equality for black people be assaulted by a black man?”
With the nation eagerly consuming news of a black underclass, Parks’ mugging served as a convenient metaphor for the decline of black youth and the degraded values of a new generation.
While saddened by the attack, Parks did not see it as a sign of community dysfunction, rejecting the idea that the biggest problem facing the black community was now black people themselves. Rather, she urged people not to read too much into it. “Many gains have been made . . . But as you can see, at this time we still have a long way to go.”
Skipper received an 8 to 15 year sentence and was transferred to an out-of-state prison for his own safety.
Rejecting the media’s characterization of Skipper as representative of a new, degenerate cohort of black youth (a view held by many black leaders of her generation, notably Bill Cosby, Alvin Pouissaint and Juan Williams), she prayed for him “and the conditions that have made him this way.”
Her approach at 81 drew from her lifelong commitment to young people. “I hope to someday see an end to the conditions in our country that would make people want to hurt others.” Similar to her frame on the 1967 riot, Parks believed that the ways to staunch individual acts of violence was to transform the structures of inequity that provided the ground in which they grew. Even as she regularly reminded young people of the importance of good character, hard work and motivation, Parks remained concentrated on changing the conditions that limited their ability to flourish.
“She adored kids,” her cousin Carolyn Green, who became one of her caretakers, noted, “Worst child in the world and [she] always saw some good in everybody. That’s her philosophy.”
Cultivating Youth Leadership
To the end, Parks placed her hope in cultivating youth leadership. Worried that adults had become “too complacent,” Parks founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development with Steele in 1987, seeking also to honor Raymond and his political commitment. According to Steele, “It always bothered her that he was kicked to the curb and never thought of. He, in fact, was her rock.”
The institute, like the youth wing of the Montgomery NAACP she had founded four decades earlier, sought to develop leadership skills within young people in order to bring them into the struggle for civil rights . . . The institute stressed self-respect, comportment and education for liberation to Detroit students. Black history for Parks had been one of the great transforming discoveries of her life and so the institute focused on exposing young people to black history and encouraging them recover their own family’s history.
“When students come to class and demand to be educated,” Parks observed, “education will take place.”
The institute sent young people both south and north through its “Pathways to Freedom” program to engage students in field research and immerse them in black history, including the opportunity to retrace the path of the Underground Railroad. Raymond had always regretted the lack of opportunity to get an education, so one key aspect of the institute’s work was to provide college assistance. Parks saw a curriculum that stressed black pride and self-knowledge as a way to address the dropout problem affecting many black youth.
Excerpted from “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” by Jeanne Theoharis. Copyright 2013. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.
Jeanne Theoharis is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. She received her AB in Afro-American studies from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in American culture from the University of Michigan. She is the author or coauthor of six books and numerous articles on the black freedom struggle and the contemporary politics of race in the United States.
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