09/12/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
IF EVER A BURGLAR PICKED THE wrong victim, it was the intruder who broke into the Detroit home of an elderly black woman last week and demanded her money. Described by police as black, about 30, with a pencil-thin mustache, the assailant reportedly beat the woman in the face and chest even though she screamed and begged him not to hit her. He then disappeared into the night with some $50 in cash—and more trouble than he knew. Moving swiftly with an outrage they shared with the entire community, police arrested a suspect only 20 hours later.
Unfortunately for the robber, his victim was Rosa Parks, 81, universally revered as the mother of the U.S. civil rights movement. It was her refusal to give up her seat to a white man in 1955 that sparked the 381-day boycott of the Montgomery, Ala., bus system and set the pattern for nonviolent resistance to southern Jim Crow laws. Parks ultimately won the right to ride in the front of the bus—but lost her job as a seamstress. She and her husband, Raymond, a barber, settled in Detroit, where she eventually went to work as a staff assistant to Rep. John Conyers. Her husband died in 1977; Parks retired from Conyers's office in 1988. She became a beloved figure in Detroit, founding the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which seeks to instill ideals and leadership qualities in inner-city youths. The city responded by naming a major street and a school for her.
Parks was about to move to a riverfront high-rise apartment, so she wouldn't have to climb stairs, when she was attacked. Luckily her injuries weren't serious. As neighbors gathered in front of her house crying, "We love you, Mrs. Parks," she was able to walk in her red bathrobe to a waiting ambulance. "I love you," she called back before she was whisked off to Detroit Receiving Hospital. Released the next morning, Parks was escorted home by her attorney, Gregory Reed, to a crowded news conference. Asked if she thought her attacker knew who she was, Parks replied, "He didn't seem to care, and I didn't tell him." However, Detroit's angry police chief, Isaiah McKinnon, cared quite a lot. "This is inconceivable," he said. "We're talking about a lady who's responsible for changing the course of this country."