Free at last after serving three years in prison for rape, former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson returned to his native Harlem Tuesday acting like a martyred hero.
"The powers that be didn't want you here and didn't want me to speak to you," he spoketh to the multitude. "But we'll beat them because God is on our side."
A minister compared the fallen champion to the Prodigal Son of the New Testament. A radio personality found parallels between Mr. Tyson's struggles and those of civil rights heroes such as Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Activist attorney C. Vernon Mason suggested that Mr. Tyson's crime has been exaggerated by the media.
"Do you all hear about the woman in South Carolina who drove her children into the river and drowned them?" Mr. Mason said. "Well, Mike Tyson didn't do that. Do you hear about the bomb that was dropped on the building in Oklahoma City? Mike Tyson didn't do that.
"Did you all remember Jeffrey Dahmer, who ate all the people and put them in a refrigerator? Mike Tyson didn't do that either."
Poetess Maya Angelou sent a letter expressing her regret that she could not be there. Celebrities such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Benjamin Hooks, former executive director of the NAACP, took part in Mike Tyson's Day of Redemption. Fifty-two Harlem area churches registered their support, according to news accounts.
Mr. Tyson capped the festivities by presenting $200,000 to various social causes and promising to eventually contribute $1 million to worthy charities.
"We love you, Mike," shouted one Harlem woman, expressing a sentiment that was repeated on hundreds of T-shirts.
"Thank you," replied Mr. Tyson with becoming modesty.
As a boxing champion, Mr. Tyson was widely respected. But the accolades he won in the ring are nothing compared with the esteem Mr. Tyson appears to have won in some people's hearts since he became a convicted rapist. An estimated 2,000 people showed up in front of the legendary Apollo Theater for Mr. Tyson's homecoming celebration Tuesday. On Monday, scarcely 100 people rallied at the same spot on behalf of Mr. Tyson's victim and for all battered and abused women.
Could the values, the priorities, of so many people really be so mixed up? The answer, I am sorry to say, is probably yes. Mr. Tyson's 1992 conviction for the rape of beauty contestant Desiree Washington stirs a lot of passions and prejudices in a lot of hearts.
One prejudice -- against women who betray heroes and bring them down -- dates back to the Old Testament, if not before. It is an unjust accusation, but some people continue to insist that Ms. Washington betrayed Mr. Tyson, as though the victim had an obligation to keep silent about the assault in order to protect the boxer's career.
Mr. Tyson's case awakened an even deeper prejudice against the criminal justice system. Some believe that the law enforcement community treats black defendants far more harshly than it treats others. While there may be considerable data to support this belief, distrust of the law leads some people to embrace as martyrs anyone who gets in trouble.
Finally, some people are defensive about anything that feeds stereotypes about blacks. The allegation that Mr. Tyson behaved like some hulking, groping, leering, out-of-control beast at the Miss Black America pageant in the hours proceeding the rape is so ugly and so stereotypical that some people would prefer to believe that the assault never occurred.
All of this said, there also existed a laudable motive behind this week's homecoming celebration for Mike Tyson: the idea of redemption; the idea that offenders should pay their debts and then be given a chance to reform themselves.
Said the Rev. Sharpton, "We are a community of broken dreams and second chances. . . . To us, he is a brother coming home to redirect his life and show young people the error of his ways."
If and when Mike Tyson does this, he would have performed a valuable service. But Mike Tyson is no hero. He probably never was a hero. Let's hope he's at least reformed.