In 1965, Rosa Parks would have had a lot to say about police brutality. By then, she had left Alabama in poverty and ill health — both brought on by the severe repercussions she faced following her 1955 bus stance — and had been living in Detroit for eight years. Between her years of political work with the Montgomery NAACP and the rampant police abuses in the Motor City, she could have cited a multitude of instances, explained how other facets of the criminal justice system enabled it, and theorized its place in the larger constellation of Jim Crow.
As Jeanne Theoharis’s The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks makes clear — and as our educational website highlights — the criminal legal system was a focal point in her decades of activism. She married Raymond Parks at a time when he formed part of a secret network aimed at freeing the wrongfully-accused Scottsboro Boys. In the 1940s, she sought justice for Black women like Recy Taylor and Gertrude Perkins, who had been raped by white men but found no justice in the courts. Given the chance, she might have connected these earlier histories to police brutality by making the case that, if police brutality were a coin, over-policing Black communities represented one side while under-policing white criminality was the other.
She might have also spoken about the ways in which police brutality served as a major enforcement mechanism for bus segregation. After all, she lived in Montgomery by the time Viola White made her own stance against bus segregation in 1944; not only did police beat and arrest her, they sought retaliation through raping her 16-year-old daughter. Maybe she would have talked about the massive over-policing of the Montgomery bus boycott, where police gave hundreds of tickets to carpoolers hoping to break the boycott’s back.
If called on to rail against police brutality in the North, Parks might have emphasized the 1963 killing of Cynthia Scott, a well-liked and well-known Black sex worker who police shot in the back and stomach. Parks had lived in Detroit for six years by this time. She was uniquely placed to connect such instances of brutality in the North to those she experienced and organized around in the South — which she actually did in a speech to the Alabama club in the late 1960s.
I hypothesize here not for intellectual exercise, but because in 1965, Parks was denied this very opportunity.
That year, the Detroit branch of the Northern Student Movement — a national and, at that time, interracial organization working for civil rights across the North — considered organizing a Michigan Summer Project. It would have been modeled on the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, a statewide initiative spearheaded by the Council of Federated Organizations that aimed to challenge Black political exclusion. The Michigan project, as it was initially conceived, would have centered police brutality as the linchpin of Northern racism. It would have made a powerful case: that police brutality was to Northern racism what disenfranchisement was to Southern racism.
Sadly, it didn’t take place, but Detroit NSM got fairly far down the road to planning it — so far, in fact, that they began to consider who might be a “Fannie Lou Hamer of the North.”1 Hamer embodied the kind of “indigenous” leader that many civil rights activists sought to foster in the South. In August 1964, she brought the Mississippi Summer Project to its high point as she testified about her voter registration attempts and the economic intimidation, police harassment, and sexualized brutality she suffered. Though much of the Democratic Party remained unmoved, in Chana Kai Lee’s words, “The support [Hamer] received was enormous … As a result of her appearance, she won tremendous national support for the Mississippi civil rights cause.”2
Thus, when NSM sought a “Fannie Lou Hamer of the North” for a potential 1965 Michigan Summer Project, they imagined a very particular leader or spokesperson. This became all the clearer as they considered — and ultimately dismissed — the suggestion of Rosa Parks. After the idea was floated, the head of the Detroit chapter, who, like Parks, was very active in Motor City civil rights circles, rejected Parks as not “a potential Fannie Lou Hammer [sic] of the North. Nor is she a potential Fannie Lou Hammer [sic] of Michigan. As a matter of fact, she is not a real Fannie Lou Hammer [sic] either.”
By way of explanation, he raised two issues. “In the first place she only weighs about 90 pounds,” he quipped. Then, acceding that Parks remained a committed activist who “will do almost anything anyone asks her to do for the movement,” he maintained that she was not “particularly dynamic.” “She will never speak unless called upon and then is reluctant to do so. I do not think she can be used other than in endorsing the project which I am sure she will do.”
Thus were the narrow grounds for rejecting Parks. She might be among the most devoted activists, but she lacked charisma. Besides which, banter or not, the line about her weight indicated expectations about what kind of embodiment Black female leadership should take, and Parks clearly didn’t fit the mold.
There is much to unpack in NSM’s rejection, but there is also the larger question of what we lost in the speech we never heard, the leadership on police brutality from Parks that never got a chance.
NSM may not have understood that, in “do[ing] almost anything anyone asks her to do for the movement,” Parks was demonstrating a political vision. That level of commitment salved despair. Parks especially valued and supported youth-led initiatives as a way to maintain momentum, both personally and politically. It was also a way to demonstrate trust in other people’s ideas and initiatives. Thus, what NSM could not see was in fact a version of leadership. Not occupying a formal position of power but still wielding influence, Parks put her presence to use in service of the movement.
Showing up to any and all movement events, panels, dinners, fundraisers, and protests also marked one’s dissent. To make one’s opposition clear was one of Parks’ strongest principles. A young Parks once told her grandmother, “I would rather be lynched than live to be mistreated and not be allowed to say ‘I don’t like it.’” Even if it didn’t immediately effect change, Parks prized making dissent clear.
She also understood that, by the 1960s, her very presence could work to validate grievances — or groups. The “mother of the civil rights movement” lent credibility to efforts she supported. “I understand that I am a symbol,” Parks once remarked, and she sought to put that symbolic power to work in the myriad activities for which she showed up.
Consequently, Parks may have been one of the best-placed individuals in their midst to become the spokesperson for a campaign against police brutality. That issue struggled to gain traction outside of poor communities, especially urban Black communities, in the 1960s. The Detroit NAACP chapter struggled for years to make police brutality a concern to white officials, but they toiled in vain. The group’s executive secretary, Arthur Johnson, maintained that Detroit’s newspapers “had a standing agreement not to cover incidents of police brutality.”
If NSM had publicly taken on police brutality with Parks at the helm, it’s likely her leadership could have helped to legitimize this crucial issue, or at least make it much harder for officials to ignore it. Given the opportunity, Parks could have confirmed what victims of police brutality had been trying to say for years — that it was the very foundation of Jim Crow, North and South.
Imagine the power of the “mother of the civil rights movement” speaking out against the violent over-policing of Black communities, North and South, of police abusing their powers in order to quash dissent and intimidate those who did speak out, of the lack of justice for Black victims of white people and police.
We lost this chance. Armed with limited ideas about what kinds of Black women could lead, NSM shot itself in the foot when it denied Rosa Parks’ potential to move people to act on police brutality. To be sure, though, NSM’s blindness is our own. Then as now, Parks’ radical vision is rarely understood in its fullness.
Moreover, this moment in 1965 is not just about Parks, or women in general, getting short shrift. It is also about what the movement lost out on in denying their intellect, capabilities, and potential. Where might today’s struggles around police brutality be if 50 years ago Black women like Parks had more chances to take the lead?
- Letter from Frank Joyce to Bill Strickland, undated (1965), in Folder 1, Box 10, Northern Student Movement Records, 1961-1966. All subsequent quotes taken from this document. ↩
- Chana Kai Lee, “Anger, Memory, and Personal Power: Fannie Lou Hamer and Civil Rights Leadership,” in Bettye Collier-Thomas and V.P. Franklin (eds) Sisters in the Struggle: African-American Women in the Civil Rights-Black Power Movement (New York: NYU Press, 2001): 163. ↩