MAXWELL:  Attacked for her courage

12/1/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


On the night of Nov. 15, a 71-year-old community activist wondered if she would be killed before sunrise. She was paying the price for trying to protect her St. Petersburg neighborhood from drug dealers and other criminals.

She did not worry so much for herself. After all, she had God to lean on. This tiny woman (who asked to remain anonymous because she has been threatened) worried for her children and friends who love her, who would miss her if something tragic happened to her.

“I could hear the guns shooting,” she said. “It was like Vietnam. I made a pallet and got on the bedroom floor. I meditated on the Scriptures. When I heard my windows breaking and vertical blinds rattling, I dialed 911 and said somebody had shot into my house. The police didn’t find any bullets, but they found bricks that had come through my windows. For two days, an officer stayed nearby from 7 p.m. until 7:30 a.m.”

Police Chief Darrel Stephens confirmed the woman’s account of events on the second night of rioting. The disturbances, which made international news, started after a white officer shot and killed a black motorist.

“She was in a lot of danger,” Stephens said. “She lives where there have been four different drug houses. She has worked with several officers, and together they have gotten rid of all the drug houses except one. The dealers are very resentful of the role she plays in trying to bring the neighborhood together.

“She is a very courageous woman. Although this has caused her a lot of fear, she believes that she has to stand up. These criminals should not subject an elderly woman _ or anybody _ to this kind of violent attack for doing what’s right. Four officers escorted her away that night. She had been on television earlier that afternoon, and the attack may have been related to that.”

This woman’s story is worth telling because voices such as hers too often are drowned out by the screeches of dubious agendas and media coverage of self-destructive dogma. Her story is noteworthy also because common criminals _ under the guise of civil rights and under the cloak of darkness _ retaliated against a law-abiding citizen.

And to add insult to injury, when Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros sashayed into town several days ago on what should have been a fact-finding mission, he, along with members of the federal Civil Rights Commission, avoided this woman and instead palavered with an assortment of 1960s-styled radical blacks and white liberals.

A homeowner for 34 years, the organizer of several community groups and the mother of three successful children, this woman has experiences and a philosophy of life that would benefit African-Americans everywhere wanting to improve their lives.

Inferior child-rearing, she said, is a major problem among many low-income blacks. “Black people are not bringing up their children to respect themselves and to respect others,” she said. “The children don’t have any respect for the law or anything else. In the Bible, it says that you have to respect the spiritual law and the physical law. The physical law is what society has. Black children must be taught to respect that law. I have had police officers standing here talking to me, and children will walk by and curse the police.”

Determination and personal responsibility, she said, are the keys to all aspects of life: “People say that when children don’t have a father, they will not succeed in life. That’s a cop-out. My children didn’t have a father in the house. I raised them on $25 a week. They didn’t stand on the corner. They had to be in the house by 8:30 to study. My son graduated from college with honors, and today he is a computer expert in Houston. I never let my children use the word “can’t’ in my house. They always had to “try’ and “do.”‘

Even as she acknowledges the horrors of racism, she believes that black people must persevere: “I told my children that I had to go to the back door of white people’s homes, sit in the back of the bus and drink out of “colored’ water fountains. But I kept my dignity. I was underpaid for my work. But I worked anyway because I needed the money to feed my children and make house payments.”

She has been a great role model for her children, never smoking or drinking in their presence. “I taught my children the value of life,” she said. “I taught them to think positively. I told them to stay away from negative-thinking people, to love themselves and to have confidence in themselves.”

Although federal dollars may help a few people in St. Petersburg, this independent activist believes that another _ more essential _ ingredient must be present if blacks are to succeed: “Cisneros can give $1-billion. It won’t solve the problem. The problem is self, not the white man. You have to want to improve your life. You have to want good things in life. It has to be inside you. Blame is the worst thing. Until we stop blaming others, we will never get up in this world. We must discover our self and stop being the victim.”

And what does the future hold for this firebrand? Will the recent attacks on her home silence her? Will the threats of personal harm frighten her?

“They may attack my house again, but I will continue to speak out,” she said. “I have been called every “bitch’ under the sun, but I’m not really afraid for myself. I’m standing on God’s promise. I’m standing up for the truth.”

The larger question is this: Will so-called black leaders and City Council members come to the aid of this exceptional woman? Will they hold special meetings to ensure her safety? Or will her voice continue to take a backseat to the voices of negativity?