Rosa Parks on Police Brutality: The Speech We Never HeardRoundup
tags: African American history, Rosa Parks, police brutality
Say Burgin is an assistant professor of history at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Her essay on George Crockett is forthcoming in a collection with NYU Press. She is also the co-developer, along with Jeanne Theoharis, of the educational website on Rosa Parks. Follow her on Twitter @sayburgin.
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.
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