On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, a young black man cracked Prince George's County NAACP president Josie Bass on the back of the neck, sent her sprawling into Rhode Island Avenue, ripped her leather bag from her shoulder and ran into the darkness.
Twenty or so of the people hanging out near the late-night liquor stores on the toughest strip in Mount Rainier watched, but offered no help.
An hour later, before Bass could take off her coat in her home a block from the mugging scene, she got a phone call. The woman on the other end of the line was frantic. Her son was scheduled to face a Prince George's County judge for sentencing the next day and she said she needed the help of the NAACP.
Bass, an intense, 33-year-old woman who lives alone and runs the county NAACP out of her house, referred the woman to a legal aid service. Before she hung up the phone, Bass asked what the alleged crime had been.
"Oh, they said he yoked some old lady and took her purse," the woman said.
This week, during her second stay in Georgetown University Hospital since the attack, Bass said she was trying to sort out the meaning of the assault on her body and on her spirit by an anonymous member of the community to which she has devoted her time most of her adult life.
"I remember hollering at the brother as he was streaking across the street, 'Dammit, if you'd have asked me for it with a decent story, I'd have given it to you,'" said Bass, who had stopped to buy a pack of cigarettes. She said she noticed two men near the door as she left the store for her car, parked nearby.
"When I came out of the store they were both behind me," Bass remembered. "One walked up beside me; I knew the other one was still behind me. Something in the back of my head said 'danger,' but I was so doggone tired I just kept saying, 'One foot in front of the other; you're almost home.'
"At that point the one that walked beside me crossed over in front of me. I immediately crossed to the street, to the car door, and that's when he hit me across the neck and I went down into the street," she said.
"There is no excuse for that.I'll never condone it," she added, sitting bolt upright in her hospital bed, chain-smoking. "That kind of stuff has got to stop."
Mount Rainier police turned over the case to Prince George's County authorities for investigation. P.G. Detective Charles Scarlata said he received the report 10 days after the attack and did not reach Bass, to begin the investigation, until this week.
Reflecting on the mugging, Bass said in an interview last week, "What they got away with was, I guess, some of my dignity, but more important than that, a pocketbook which is more like an attache case, which is my file."
One of the first things she did after returning to the hospital was place a new Rolodex on her bedside table. She began to rebuild her network of names and numbers that begins in the homes of insiders on Capitol Hill and runs through the offices of elected officials in Annapolis. c
Bass was recently reelected county NAACP president but could not attend the installation ceremony because of her illness. She was admitted to Georgetown University Hospital three days after she was attacked, suffering from severe stomach cramps, a lingering flu and exhaustion. She was released five days later, but she was re-admitted on Jan. 31 because she was having trouble keeping her balance.
Her physician, Dr. Charles Brotman, who is on the teaching staff at Georgetown, said, "Between hospitalizations her walking became markedly impaired. That's when I said, 'Back in the hospital for you.'" Brotman ordered a series of tests for Bass, and said he no longer suspects her symptoms are related to her attack, as he first thought. He expects to release her from the hospital this week.
Bass, a native Washingtonian, took over leadership of the county NAACP in May 1979. The chapter's vitality and active membership of fewer than 500 was at a low ebb in the wake of a controversy that resulted in the removal of its previous president, William Martin. The chapter has since grown to over 1,000 members, according to Bass.
She is a self-described "hell-raiser" who filed the original complaint against Martin with the national NAACP after Martin negotiated a secret agreement with a county school board member to alter the county busing plan. Bass was also a prominent aide to Gov. Harry Hughes, serving as his liaison between two of the largest state agencies, the department of correctional safety and the department of human resources, until political infighting among the governor's executive aides forced her resignation in late 1979.
Like hundreds of other federal employes, Bass is also worried that the Republican administration may remove her from her job as a special assistant to the director of the federal community service ACTION program. She is a Democratic political appointee to the position.
On the Sunday after the mugging, the Rev. Perry Smith, pastor of the second-largest black church in Prince George's and an NAACP director, told his congregation about the incident and reminded them of the need for the community to pull together.
"I felt the need to talk about the fact that our survival depends on us developing warm and personal relationships in the community," said Smith, pastor of the First Baptist Church of North Brentwood.
"We have a tremendous conservative mood in the country at this point.What we see in the county is no different," he added.
His sermon moved Yvonne Jones, a teacher at predominantly black Hillcrest Heights Elementary School, to take up a small collection among several teachers at the school to buy flowers for Bass. One of the teachers, Sylvia Wilson, told her fifth grade class about the mugging and they made get-well cards.
It took Jones several days to catch up with Bass at her home and present the small portfolio of cards.
"Please get well soon, please accept this card," wrote one student."I'm sorry for your accident, I'm just trying to say that I love you very much."
"Dear Miss Bass," began another, "I hope you get well soon. I don't know you that well, but I think I am going to like you. We can get to know one another when you get out of the hospital."
"Of all my community work, nobody has ever said thank you the way this thank you came across," said Bass. "I'm not a crying woman, but I tell you these got to me."
She shared the handmade cards with her 80-year-old father.
"It was good, sharing with my dad," she said. "After we finished, he helped me out of the chair and we just sort of hugged each other. I told him, 'I've got my armor now; the letters from the kids have said that I'm right. That's why I've got to fight to get out of this bed.'"
Bass says that the knowledge that there is an extended family who cares about her work will propel her back into community work in quick order.
"I still insist on my own independence," she said. "That fighter instinct in me says that in the midst of despair, you will come up with another plan. I refuse to have my spirit broken. Whatever it is they find the mugging has caused me, I will deal with it, the same way I deal with whatever fight is before me. If they let me out of here and I walk funny with a cane, then I walk funny with a cane. At least I'm walking."