Mutual Respect: The Passing of Bill Elkins and the Lessons of Growing Old

Bill Elkins Jr. (Photo: Los Angeles Times)

The youth today, many known to be part of street organizations (what society calls “gangs”), have this thing about respect. They’ll tell you in a heartbeat that all they want in this world is “respect.” Now you ask them what that means and you might get 100 different answers, but they all come down to acknowledgment. Whether it’s a head nod, or an open ear to the realities of their world, respect is a real commodity for them. The more they have, the more they seem to value themselves. Some don’t know how to get it and they try to demand it. They don’t understand that respect is not given (or taken, for that matter), but earned. If they live long enough, they’ll also discover respect is learned. For the young often confuse being liked (or loved) with being respected.

You hear them often lament that nobody gives them “no love” and so they, in turn, give no respect. One really has nothing to do with the other. You can like a person and not respect them. Conversely, you cannot like a person but not have a whole lot of respect for them. You might even like (appreciate) them in the end. When they learn to give respect, they’ll learn they get respect, for respect is often a mutual proposition, a reciprocal endeavor that has nothing at all to do with being liked (or loved). It is usually derived out of a conflict or confrontation and usually results out of an appreciation for the integrity of a person’s principled stand. You can disagree with a person’s position but respect their stand if it’s on a point of principle.

This lesson came full circle to me while attending the funeral of long-time Tom Bradley aide, Bill Elkins, Jr., who passed away at the age of 90. I first met Bill Elkins as an NAACP official at a community meeting on then Mayor Tom Bradley’s pet project, the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall in 1986. We were on the opposite sides of this significant community economic development issue.

Over the next three years, Bill Elkins and I would have some ferocious public encounters. Looking back 25 years later, they were some ugly encounters. Bill Elkins was the ultimate curmudgeon. As Mayor Tom Bradley primary community ambassador, he was perceived as an ill-tempered, difficult, cantankerous old man (we were in our late 20s, they were in their mid-60s — old to us then) with, what we thought then as, an antiquated view of the world. Folks in the 1980s still had their world (and community action) view shaped by the 1960s.

Bradley, Elkins and the like thought that young folks like us (which to them was anybody under 40) should be seen and not heard in the community. They should respect their elders, meaning talk when we’re spoken to and respond only when asked a question. And we did respect them. We just didn’t worship them. Yeah, we talked back when we thought we had something to say (because most of the time we did) and we expected them to listen to us as they expected us to listen to them.

Didn’t always work that way, particularly with Elkins and I. Bill ended up shouting at us, and we ended up shouting back. Bradley wanted the mall developed come hell or high water even though the economics of the deal never synced in favor of the community having a vested interest. They knew the economics of the deal weren’t favorable; they just didn’t know we knew, too. The Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw Mall ended up being every bit of the compromise we said it would be. It’s still surviving but “phase two” never got off the ground and today looks like Beirut or Afghanistan.

Some 20 years later, in the mid-2000s, Bill and I had a conversation about the mall debate. He had just had hip surgery and was a lot calmer by then. So was I. Both of us reflected on that experience as a mix of generation gap and culture clash. He acknowledged that mistakes were made and they could have listened more. I acknowledged that “the youngstas” could’ve been a little more diplomatic. He said, “you mean respectful?” We both laughed. Bill was still Bill, hardlined and still trying to put a youngsta in his place.

It really didn’t matter as much. We probably still didn’t like each other very much—more than we did 20 years ago—but we both respected each other and our infrequent encounters were a lot more pleasurable—even respectful. Bill never cared if you liked him. He only cared that you respected him. Guess it was just the lessons of growing old and appreciating the fight for what it was. Couldn’t have said I expected it, but I did appreciate being able to talk to him about it.

When I had heard he passed away, I said a prayer for him and his family. I didn’t see myself as particularly close to him but he was a community comrade and I wanted to pay my respects. A packed church at Second Baptist came to do the same thing. Generals usually get all the accolades and lieutenants usually are forgotten over time. Bill Elkins legacy was that of being a 20-year loyal and committed soldier to the Bradley legacy. The community respected that.

I’m sure many attended the service out of a deep love and friendship for Bill Elkins. I’m all were there in a show of deep respect to Bill Elkins. I know I was. A life lesson we often miss when we are young searching for respect, never understanding that it is earned in ways one least expects. Respect becomes mutual as time reveals the results of our stands. Sometimes it takes a passing to realize what the fight was really all about. We both wanted progress, just in different ways.

Much respect, Bill Elkins. Rest in peace.

Anthony Asadullah Samad

Anthony Asadullah Samad, Ph.D., is a national columnist, managing director of the Urban Issues Forum and author of the upcoming book, REAL EYEZ: Race, Reality and Politics in 21 Century Politics. He can be reached at www.AnthonySamad.com.

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