Angelo Henderson slays the myth of black apathy

March 1
In this Oct. 16, 2013 photo, radio host Angelo Henderson laughs with Detroit mayoral candidate Mike Duggan and Impact Church Pastor Keenan Knox. (AP Photo/Detroit News, Todd McInturf)
In this Oct. 16, 2013 photo, radio host Angelo Henderson laughs with Detroit mayoral candidate Mike Duggan and Impact Church Pastor Keenan Knox. (AP Photo/Detroit News, Todd McInturf)

My good friend Angelo Henderson, an award-winning journalist turned crime-fighter, was buried this week in Detroit.

I thought of Angelo every time a commentator or columnist defending George Zimmerman or, more recently, Michael Dunn, would ask why African Americans were not as outraged and outspoken about black-on-black crime. During his much too short life – he was only 51 years old when he died – Angelo proved that argument wrong again and again through his work inside, and later outside, the newsroom.

Angelo, who died on Feb. 15 of a coronary embolism, was a co-founder of Detroit 300, a community patrol group that challenged the “no snitch” culture that allows criminals to brazenly prowl urban communities because witnesses are too afraid to provide police with information that could help catch robbers, rapists and murderers.

Detroit 300 told residents that they should not tolerate being treated like their lives don’t matter – either by flagrant criminals or an ineffective police department. The group convinced residents to open up and tell what they’d seen or heard, tips that the volunteers passed along to the authorities. Detroit 300 was credited with helping police make a number of arrests, including three teenagers who were charged in the home invasion and rape of a 90-year-old woman.

Dozens of members of Detroit 300, mostly black men, but some women, wearing the group’s orange-and-black T-shirts and caps, turned out to pay their respects at Angelo’s wake last weekend in Detroit. Their presence was a defiant response to those who try to use respectability politics to argue that the black community is somehow tolerant of crime and disorder.  I teared up when I heard Angelo’s voice in a video that was playing during the wake, in which he was leading a rally, urging residents to take back their streets so they won’t be afraid to stop at a gas station to fill up their car, walk to church, or even take out the trash after dark.

As a journalist, Angelo explored the crushing effects of crime in Detroit in a story that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999. While working at the Wall Street Journal he wrote about a violent confrontation between a pharmacist and a gun-wielding man who attempted to rob a neighborhood drug store. The druggist, a middle-aged white man who had been previously robbed at gun point and vowed to never be so vulnerable again, shot and killed a black man who was described as a hustler and drug dealer. Angelo’s telling of the encounter was not a discourse on race or gun control vs. gun rights.  It was simply an intimate look at how crime affected two lives, told with such empathy that you couldn’t help but ask yourself, “What would I do? How would I feel?”

His friends in the business, myself included, were incredulous when just a few years after winning journalism’s top honor, Angelo “dropped the mic,” if you will. He said he felt that he’d done all he wanted to do in the newsroom and that he was moving on to the pulpit. And so Angelo studied urban ministry and in 2003 became an ordained minister. He was an associate pastor at Triumph Church in Detroit at the time of his death.

I hope Angelo will not think I’m being blasphemous to say that I believe his true calling was being a griot. He became legendary — an “icon,” local media declared in reporting his death —  in Detroit as host of a daily news talk radio show, “Your Voice with Angelo Henderson.” His mid-day program was one of the most popular in the city because he gave residents of besieged communities a forum to vent their frustrations, and more importantly, he gave them the information and encouragement to take action. A regular feature of the show was a daily crime blotter, in which he reported on the latest offenses. Angelo was especially incensed by incidents in which children and the elderly were victims.

He loved that show. You could tell by the way his eyes sparkled and he laughed out loud when he shared stories about calling out a slacker public servant or reenacting a testy or hilarious dialogue with a caller. And you could see it in the photos he posted on his Facebook page of him in the booth smiling, sometimes clowning around with colleagues and guests. His listeners and church members have posted hundreds of messages on his Facebook page, mourning his death and celebrating his life, as well as offering words of comfort to his wife, Felecia, an editor at the Detroit News, and their son, Grant, a college student who turned 20 the day after his father died.

Angelo, no matter what he happened to be doing at a given moment in his ever-changing professional life, is not just an extraordinary example of the black community’s outrage and determination to fight crime. He was a megaphone for those who shared that determination and a leader who gave people the information and courage to stand up for themselves.

His radio station, WCHB-1200 AM, put together an audio tribute that let Angelo speak for himself. This was my favorite soundbite:

We’re at the point where someone can rob your next door neighbor, who you speak to every morning and who you plant flowers with. If you let people walk out of their house and their homes with their flat screen TV and all the things they’ve worked for and you just shut your window and go sit on your couch, I mean what kind of community is this? At some point we have to provide hope not only catching criminals but hope to say that we care and that we can make a difference. All we have to do is do something.

Vanessa Williams is a deputy national editor at The Post and edits the She The People blog. She has covered and edited local and national politics for the paper. Contact her at Vanessa.Williams@washpost.com.
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