By Joe S. Black
Born in the aftermath of integration and white-flight in Detroit, I remember being taught how great Martin Luther King was and Malcolm X being spoken of as his hate mongering nemesis. Times have changed and the perceptions of civil rights leaders have evolved…
Mr. Black stands in the middle of his girlfriend from high school’s mother and his girlfriend. Mrs. Rosa Parks stands to the left. Photo courtesy of J. Black.
I was fourteen years old and when I met my first girlfriend. We attended the same high school. I would walk her to the bus stop in the morning and from the bus stop after school (in a neighborhood- that most would designate as a ghetto, that helped give birth to Young Boys Incorporated and Detroit’s crack epidemic.) Every now and then, there would be an ‘anonymous’ elderly woman at my girlfriend’s house. She was introduced to me. I didn’t pay her much attention, being a young man infatuated. I showed proper respect but have to admit my focus was on the young lady in the house and believed the elderly woman was a great aunt or a friendly neighbor.
Every now and then I would be asked to do some minor errand for the elderly woman. One day, my girlfriend’s mother asked if I would be willing to carry some bags for the woman at a NAACP convention in downtown Detroit. I remember vividly loading bags into the trunk of the car and hopping into the backseat. My girlfriend’s mother shot me a look that only Black women have mastered. She directed me to get the car doors for the elderly woman and herself. Embarrassed I quickly got out, got the doors for the woman, my girlfriend and her mother. I rode to Joe Louis Arena without a thought on my mind but my girlfriend sitting next to me. We arrived and were directed to special parking. I got the bags from the trunk and began to follow the woman as she was escorted by security guards with walkie-talkies and greeted by vaguely familiar politicians and celebrities of Detroit. I followed the woman through a set of double doors that opened to a large room filled with people. The chatter of the room turned into a low hum and then into a roar of applause and clapping as I came to the realization that this woman I was following was not just an elderly Black woman who was friends with my girlfriend’s family but was THE ROSA PARKS!
I am ashamed to admit that the woman who gave birth to the Civil Rights Movement lived less than half a mile from me on Wildemere Street and I didn’t realize it. The thoughts that ran through my head were many. Why is This Woman living in the ‘hood less than two miles from a street that bears Her name? How could I have been so ignorant as to not recognize Her for over a year?
When I went home, I felt so honored (geeked) I told my mother, my father, my brothers, and my friends. Some expressed disbelief. I held Her in awe and reverence from that point on. I always felt a little embarrassed, around Her, that I didn’t realize who She was when I first met Her. I had just thought of Her as Mrs. Parks, an elderly Black woman living in Detroit. When I was approaching my graduation from high school, after paying for pictures, my tuxedo and flowers I did not have enough money for a Limo. Mrs. Parks let me use Her car to take my girlfriend to the prom. It was a little car that no one would ever guess belonged to a woman of such prestige and magnitude. I rode in that car as if it were platinum with diamond headlights. I was honored and proud not just that She allowed me the use of Her car but that She thought about me that much to allow this.
Years go by. My first girlfriend and I are long over. I am in Kalamazoo with the family of the woman who would soon become my wife and mother of my children. A news report appears on CNN, “Rosa Parks attacked in her Detroit home…” I remember seeing the picture of a vaguely familiar face shown as the suspect. The face was that of Joseph Skipper. He was the best friend of one of my older brothers. Back in the day, he lived around the corner from me. He used to wear suits, had a good job, and was seen by everyone in the ‘hood as the kid who was “gonna make it”. He didn’t. He got hooked on drugs, made bad decisions, and found himself trying to rob an ‘anonymous’ elderly Black Woman in a Detroit ghetto.
I remember, after Joseph Skipper was identified and sent to jail, being shocked by how much weight he had lost and how different he looked. I was sad and hurt that a homie could do something so ugly and vile. I was not
surprised by Mrs. Parks’ concern and desire that he be rehabilitated.
I have a picture on my laptop taken by my father in 1987. It is taken in front of my childhood home in Detroit. It is of my girlfriend’s mother, my girlfriend, Mrs. Parks and me in a tuxedo. I look at it and I remember Mrs. Parks as a kind lady. I remember her as a humble and sweet. I remember her as a Black woman, who if you were naive or an infatuated teen, you could easily not see as a woman who changed the world.
I learned from her that greatness and good could be found in humble and regular people. I learned from her that simple and small acts of conscience and bravery can have magnificent ripple effects and can change the world. I learned from her that true heroes are not made by what they have done but by how they have lived.Thank you, Mrs. Parks. Not just for your car but also for making this country, No! This world a better place for my children and me. I will as a writer, a teacher, a parent, and a man always hold you in reverence and share the lessons you have given, to all that I can reach.
Friend and Beneficiary of The Most Honorable and Esteemed Mrs. Rosa Parks