Robber recasts a civil rights heroine: The mugging of Rosa Parks in her own home highlights America's black-on-black crime crisis

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The Independent Online
MOTHER Parks, we are told, is not coming to the party. Ten days after being robbed in her home, one of the most celebrated women in American history is back in hospital, because her pacemaker was damaged in the assault. So instead of cutting the enormous cake, decorated in icing bearing a smudgy likeness of her face, we are asked to join hands in prayer.

This was to have been a special moment of consolation for Rosa Parks, otherwise known as the 'Mother of the Civil Rights Movement' in America. The apartment we are in, high in an exclusive residential complex on the edge of the Detroit River, is being partially donated to her by sympathisers as a safer home in which to pass her declining years.

In the run of urban crime, the attack on the 81-year-old Mrs Parks - just another defenceless widow - was almost mundane. After she had gone to bed, she was awoken by a man breaking down the back door. He asked for money, and she gave him a few dollars. He demanded more. He left after taking dollars 56 ( pounds 38) and battering Mrs Parks badly enough to put her in hospital.

Yet what occurred was unusually poignant and may become symbolic.

He was a black man, and his victim was not any old lady. She was the Rosa Parks, who has avenues across the country named after her - the former seamstress who on 1 December 1955 boarded a bus on her way home from work in a department store in Montgomery, Alabama. It was her simple action on that bus that afternoon, which set off the long struggle for equal rights for all black people in America, including those of her assailant.

In the saga of black-white relations, it is one of the most compelling stories. After boarding the bus, she obediently - under the old segregationist laws - found a seat towards the rear, just behind the front rows reserved for whites. But when the white section filled up and the driver asked her and three other blacks to stand at the back to allow other whites to sit down, Rosa Parks refused.

Her defiance and subsequent arrest galvanised black leaders in the city - including a youthful minister named Martin Luther King - and triggered a black boycott of the Montgomery buses, which lasted nearly a year.

It marked the beginning of the revolution that led to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1968.

Now Rosa Parks may be about to take on a less happy, symbolism - representing thousands of victims of violent crime in American cities, especially in black communities.

An epidemic of black-on- black crime is raging in America, which black leaders themselves, including the Rev Jesse Jackson, are beginning to identify as the new battleground for the black struggle. It is so prevalent, Mr Jackson said recently, that 'we have come to accept it as normal'.

Some civic leaders hope to use what happened to Mrs Parks as a clarion call to African Americans. But Mrs Parks, a soft-spoken lady with greying hair and glasses, may not relish such a role. In comments since the attack, she has acknowledged that not all that she once prayed for has been achieved.

'Many gains have been made,' she said, 'but as you can see at this time, we have a long way to go. So many of our young people are going astray.'

Almost 40 years after the Montgomery boycott, how much does Rosa Parks - or indeed any of the civil rights history - mean to young blacks trapped in the urban ghettoes? The attacker admitted to police that he recognised his victim but was not deterred. 'Hey, aren't you Rosa Parks?' he apparently asked before proceeding with his crime.

Her name, at least, has not been forgotten. Along a stretch of Gratiot Street, which runs through some of the most derelict parts of this city, young blacks going home from school all know her and, more or less, what she did.

'She got up from the back of the bus and went to the front,' said Bob Turner, 17. 'She's famous because she started that boycott a long time away, because black people couldn't sit down on the bus,' said Michael Chambers, 14.

Among five younger children running past the Action Market, its windows boarded up and protective grills around the check-outs inside, two know about Rosa. The youngest, aged from six to eight, do not.

In Washington's subterranean fast-food market beneath Union Station, the black youngsters are even less sure. Some melt suddenly away when asked about Mrs Parks, shaking their heads in apparent ignorance.

Here too, though, most say that they understand her place in history, including 20-year-old Michael, a drug pusher through his teens who now works for McDonald's. 'She changed things. Now us niggers don't have to sit at the back of the bus. She is history and she is a role model.'

But Michael and those of his friends who stay to talk are pessimistic about how much the civil rights movement really means to many young black people, especially those already involved in crime.

'They don't care no more. People don't care no more. He just wanted the money. He wasn't going to say, 'I know you're Rosa Parks and I'm not going to rob you.' He is going to rob her anyway. People don't care. They don't have any remorse,' said Michael.

In the Detroit apartment that will soon be Mrs Parks', the Rev Jim Holly, the most prominent of the city's black leaders, adds his own fears that the history of the civil rights movement has been reduced to symbols only, without substance or meaning.

'Our people, we want the map of Africa to hang around their necks, but we can't find it on the map,' he commented. He agreed that the focus of efforts now should be on crime and the social conditions of most blacks.

'We have enough laws on the books. What we must do is ensure that they are enacted. We have to look less to external things and more internally into our own community.'

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