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Detroit Needs Parks
Rosa Parks's burial shines a light on unfinished business.


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Henry Payne

Silently, reverentially, thousands of Detroiters filed past Rosa Parks’s handsome mahogany casket in the sunlit rotunda of Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History on Tuesday for one last look at an American hero. The scene was an island of noble serenity amidst the sea of poverty and violence that engulfs blacks every day in this city.

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Parks’s burial in Detroit is a poignant irony: a woman that embodied the dream of black equality being laid to rest in a place that symbolizes the nightmare of urban black despair. An icon of yesterday’s civil-rights leadership is laid to rest–but where are today’s political pioneers?

The problems of Detroit in 2005 are not the problems of Montgomery 50 years ago. Today, Detroit blacks have legal equality and black representatives in political office–yet their city is in crisis. Detroit’s crime rate ranks as one of the nation’s worst–a shocking 42 homicides per 100,000 citizens. (New York, by comparison, has seven. Los Angeles, 17.) These are largely black victims of black criminals. While officially 12 percent, the city’s unemployment rate is estimated closer to 30 percent as the population’s staggering 47-percent adult-illiteracy rate and high taxes make Detroit inhospitable to business.

Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick attended Parks’s funeral Wednesday, but his record does not do her justice. Two years ago Kilpatrick denied the desperate families of his city $200 million–yes, $200 million – in education aid from philanthropist Robert Thompson to build 15 charter schools. In sharp contrast to Parks’s bravery on December 1, 1955, Kilpatrick’s act was an act of cowardice. Rather than stand up for the city’s children, he buckled before its teacher unions. “They should be sure to get the best education that they can and choose careers that they can be progressive in as they go into their adulthood,” Parks told Scholastic magazine in 1997. But in a city where public-school graduation rates below 50 percent, and where city leadership is hostile to charter alternatives, that goal seems more distant than ever.

In his campaign for reelection this month, Kilpatrick has been notable not for his racial healing, but for his racial division. This crude tactic reached its height last week when the mayor’s political allies ran a newspaper ad headlined, “Lynching is still legal in America.” Praising Kilpatrick for not wanting to sell the city out to white people who “want to steal the water department and outsource city jobs,” the ad urges voters to “just say ‘no’ to the [white] Suburban Raiders.”

Parks funeral comes days after a Detroit News study found widespread corruption in the city clerk’s office, which runs city elections. A master voter list was found to contain 380,000 incorrect names and addresses–including people who are deceased–and city employees routinely violate state law by filling in ballots and delivering them on behalf of residents. Clerk Jackie Currie has been convicted for criminal contempt in defying a court order to desist in these practices–yet she remains in the office that will conduct elections in two weeks time.

Rather than address these injustices, meanwhile, civil-rights veteran and Detroit congressional Rep. John Conyers spends his time on a quixotic effort to impeach George W. Bush over the Downing Street memos.

The media, too, continue to cover Detroit’s problems as an extension of the civil-rights movement–as if marching would have any relevance to rampant crime and 80 percent illegitimacy rates.

In an article in the November 7 issue of Newsweek, Ellis Cose makes the familiar case that blacks are still battling segregation. Detroit, he laments, is the most segregated metro area in America, and “segregation remains a fundamental American reality.”

But Detroit’s reality contradicts Cose’s boilerplate analysis. Because of its century-long attraction to workers as a high-paying auto-jobs machine, metro Detroit is one of the most diverse cities on the planet. Detroit doesn’t have segregation, it has identification. Arabs move here and live in the Arab-populated Dearborn. Jews and Indians live in West Bloomfield. Eastern Europeans from Poland and Albania live in Warren. This “segregation” means ethnic groups share resources and experience to build lives, open businesses, and raise children.

What bedevils Detroit is this lack of community. With sky-high illegitimacy rates and rotten schools, children become trapped in the cycle of poverty. Those blacks that do make it move out–to places like Southfield, a middle-class and overwhelmingly black township. How does Cose explain this “segregation” of blacks from blacks?

This, of course, is the natural separation of class, not color. And the destructive decades of Great Society welfare and corrupt political leadership have doomed Detroit to a culture of illegitimacy and economic dependence.

Mayor Kilpatrick, Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson all attended Wednesday’s funeral for Rosa Parks. But they cannot fill her shoes. They are part of the problem. Rosa Parks stood for the idea that America should live up to the promises of its founding principles. Now America’s political leadership must live up to the promise of safe urban neighborhoods and good schools.

Henry Payne is a freelance writer in Detroit, and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News.



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