Remembering Thabiti Olatunji, Fighter for Hope and Law in a Crime-Ridden Neighborhood

After grief, the next thing that came to me when I heard about the death of Thabiti Olatunji was his story. It's not the one we normally tell.

Olatunji died two weeks ago. His first name is pronounced with a hard T, Ta-BEE-tee. I think he was 64 years old. As of this writing, I have been unable to reach his family, who are out of state, to confirm his age.

Olatunji's life is the story of this city in the last quarter century, but not the story on the front page or the TV news. It's a much more complicated saga, one we seldom even mention. But it's what's really happening.

He was in poor health for a long time, dragging an oxygen bottle around behind him to political events, skinny as a rail after having been too big at one point. But even when he was sick the thing about Olatunji was always the imposing figure he cut.

Charles Wilson, a friend, was older and ahead of him at Booker T. Washington high school. When Olatunji showed up as a freshman at Booker T., Wilson already knew this kid was somebody. Wilson had watched him play basketball at K.B. Polk Elementary, where Olatunji was head and shoulders over everybody else.

"I remembered seeing him running up and down that basketball court at K.B. Polk," Wilson told me. "That's back when he was still Larry Stephens. When he came to Booker T., I said, 'I know who you are.'"

For the last 20 years of his life, Olatunji was a community organizer and activist in a little area just east of Love Field, a neighborhood of less than 2 square miles usually called North Park, even though it has nothing to do with NorthPark Center four miles to the east. North Park is a largely isolated black neighborhood that evolved from a rural black enclave called Elm Thicket.

If neighborhoods could talk, North Park might never get done telling the story of its legitimate racial grievances. In the 1940s the city used eminent domain to seize much of Elm Thicket from black owners at very low prices, supposedly for airport expansion. But then the city sold the land to white owners for residential development.

A black physician, John Chisum, complained. City Manager Charles C. Ford replied airily to reporters that the negro owners were more than welcome to come in and bid for their property back, as long as they understood that it was worth a lot more now that the area was no longer black.

Somehow a solid core of black families was able to stick it out. The neighborhood that emerged was by the late 1960s still black but diverse in terms of income and housing. When a few white families announced they were looking for non-segregated neighborhoods in an otherwise rigidly segregated city, leaders in North Park welcomed them.

At the same time middle-class black families were inching their way east out of North Park toward more affluent streets in the Greenway Parks area, east of Bluffview. They weren't welcomed with open arms exactly, but nobody burned crosses on their lawns or tossed bombs in their houses as had happened in Dallas only a decade earlier. For a while it looked as if this part of Dallas might be the garden from which a more tolerant city would grow.

Things didn't turn out that way. By the time Olatunji, a computer programmer, came back to Dallas to work in the late 1980s, crime and drugs had taken a vicious bite out of his old neighborhood, especially on the streets of modest 1940s frame cottages closer to the airport. And the entire city had fallen into bitter racial division.

I met Olatunji in 2004, a little after David Kunkle was named chief of police. All I knew was that this tall somber man, always dressed in African robes, had led a delegation to police headquarters to make some kind of demands.

We in the media really only knew the story of one kind of demand. The story of black people and cops in Dallas fetched all the way back to 1989, crystallized on a day when an angry mob of white police and family members had packed the City Council chamber to demand that black council members Al Lipscomb and Diane Ragsdale resign. Ragsdale screamed at them that they were all racists.

We knew that story. Most of us completely missed the story that Bob Ray Sanders, then of KERA Public Television, reported as part of a national PBS series on drugs.

Sanders told the story of Fahim Minkah, the former Black Panther who with Peter Johnson and other black leaders was waging an incredibly brave war on drug dealers in southern Dallas. Minkah's group, African American Men Against Narcotics, marched on foot to dope houses, ringed them with chanting pickets, did surveillance on them with video cameras and demanded greater police presence.