Eleven-year-old Sur Williams is a hero. He deserves to be, even if he shouldn't have had to be. What he did was to call the police to rescue a 14-year-old girl who was being sexually assaulted in a St. Louis park, while several onlookers, reportedly including at least three adults, watched for nearly 40 minutes and did nothing. Police say his action may have saved the girl's life.
"I felt somebody should have done something, because the girl was really screaming and she looked like she was being hurt," the young hero told the Associated Press. "They were holding her neck and beating her, and they said they would stab her if she didn't let them do what they wanted to. What surprised me was that they were doing it in front of a whole bunch of people, and everybody could see."
I'm glad he is still capable of being surprised at such things. I'm not. After reading about cases ranging from Kitty Genovese to the New Beford, Mass., woman allegedly gang raped in a bar while customers encouraged her attackers--after hearing strangers speculate as to whether a rape victim may have been "asking for it"--you stop being surprised. Shocked and outraged, maybe, but not surprised.
That's why it's so encouraging when a story like Sur Williams' makes the national wires. His heroism-by- contrast was the talk of St. Louis this week. Reporters have called from several states. The local police captain says he will recommend the boy for a police department commendation. Walter Lannam, owner of the Animal House, a local bar and disco, has started a college scholarship fund for the 11-year-old. A police department spokesman said there are so many offers of help, so many proposals to set up Sur Williams funds, so many people groping for a way to say thanks, that the department is "trying to assist the boy's family in setting up something."
He deserves the attention and encouragement for doing what all of us like to think we would do in like circumstances, even when it would be easier--and safer--to do nothing. And yet the question nags: is race at least a partial explanation for this outpouring? Sur Williams and the two teen-agers charged with rape and sodomy in the case are black. The girl is white. Would the reaction have been the same if everybody involved were black? All white? If the races of those involved were reversed?
Maybe these things would have affected the reactions of cynical adults. For Sur Williams (and for his mother, who must share the hero's billing) they were matters of supreme indifference. His mother had told him that if he ever saw a girl being sexually molested, he should run and get the police. Not just a girl whose skin color approximated his own. Not just a nice girl, a girl who didn't appear to be "asking for it," but any girl, being assaulted by anybody.
Somehow, the impression has gotten around that heroism must entail reckless disregard of one's own life and limb. Sometimes it does. But sometimes, as with young Sur Williams, it involves no more than doing what you didn't have to do because you had to do it. Accounts for the youngster have been established at City Bank and at Gravois Bank. But I expect the St. Louis Post Office would get a check to the right place if were simply addressed: To Sur, with love.