GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Every year, the Grand Rapids Community College gives out the Giant Award named after her. But who was activist Phyllis Scott?
Grand Rapids Public Library Historian Tim Gloege says the early civil rights leader was a force for change in Grand Rapids, but her story ultimately ended in tragedy with her murder in 1978.
Scott got her start in union leadership at a local General Motors plant. In 1965, she spoke out against a GM shop chairman and union member who made derogatory remarks about Black women and said the plant was discriminating by hiring “too many” Black women, according to Scott.
Scott also worked extensively with Grand Rapids’ ill-fated Model Cities program, serving as acting director in 1969 and organizing the election of the program’s permanent committee while working as the city manager’s special assistant. The Model Cities committee was tasked with creating a five-year action plan to resolve housing, health, education and transportation problems in the area primarily encompassed by Wealthy Street, Garden Street, Union Avenue and Godfrey Avenue. Scott resigned from the permanent committee within its first year.
“Following in the footsteps of other members who have resigned, I feel sincerely disturbed that the concept of Model Cities is still a ‘utopian’ dream for the people of Grand Rapids who so badly needed to see this dream become a reality. This can never happen under the present leadership and certain committee members,” she stated in her resignation letter to the committee.
That same year, she led a group of South Middle School parents concerned about a controversial master plan from the Grand Rapids Board of Education to bus Black inner-city students to schools in Grand Rapids’ predominantly white middle-class neighborhoods. Those against the master plan said the Black students weren’t welcome in these schools and their education suffered. The group also claimed the plan would eliminate inner-city schools and was discriminatory in other ways. A petition against the master plan garnered 1,400 signatures.
“We will not let you continue. We are drawing on the expertise of Blacks from all over the country,” Scott stated in an Aug. 5, 1969 article from the Grand Rapids Press.
Scott ultimately organized the “Oct. 1 Movement” to boycott the district. The group encouraged all 7,000 Black students to stay home that month, which they said would cost Grand Rapids schools an estimated $1.5 million in state aid.
Dozens of parents and students picketed outside South Middle School and Scott reported about half of Black students didn’t show up to class in inner-city schools during the boycott’s early days. However, a district count found most kids bused to outer city schools still attended.
During the boycott, Scott said police were harassing her by following and watching her. The police superintendent said boycott leaders were under surveillance “to keep an eye on crowds and make sure nothing happens.”
The demonstration by Scott also led to threats of legal action from her ex-husband, police detective Robert V. Scott, who was angered that his former spouse was keeping their three school-age daughters out of the classroom. Scott said he was acting as a father, not out of pressure from the police department.
Scott’s group ultimately ended the boycott after a little more than a week to instead join the local chapter of the NAACP in legal action against the Grand Rapids Board of Education.
“May Grand Rapids people, both black and white, keep the black school boycott forever in mind that parents joined with other community people here in this city, trying to bring about a change in the most effective non-violent way possible, and were totally suppressed by a system that could only stop it by threats to parents,” Scott wrote in an op ed the Grand Rapids Press published on Sept. 15, 1969.
“I want it publicly known that I will support every organization, every group, every person attempting to change a racist society for the equality of all black people,” she concluded. “We do not feel beaten.”
NEW VISION FOR GRAND RAPIDS SCHOOLS
The district superintendent later unveiled a 14-point point program to improve the master plan with an aim at more community involvement and creating Southeast High School. Scott advocated for student-parent councils in all Grand Rapids schools and a citywide executive board in direct communication with the superintendent.
A month later, Scott announced she was running for a seat on the Grand Rapids Board of Education.
Although her bid for the board ultimately failed, Scott’s vision for the district echoed the future of Grand Rapids Public Schools. She pushed for K-12 schools in every section of the city when the district’s master plan didn’t include a middle or high school in Grand Rapids’ inner city. Scott recommended desegregating schools by creating “separate, but innovative and relevant curricula at each school, so that the student would attend the high school that best qualifies him for his future vocation,” according to a proposal decades before GRPS launched its Centers for Innovation program.
Scott also advocated for more parent involvement in schools and reallocating some Title I funds to provide breakfast and lunch to disadvantaged children, citing studies connecting student success to good nutrition.
After losing the primary, Scott was fired from her counseling post with the Neighborhood Youth Program for insubordination because she didn’t show up to work when she was involved in school demonstrations. She fought the allegations for months and the Grand Rapids Civil Service Board ultimately reinstated her. Months later, Scott was laid off when her job was cut during program reorganization. She became a clerk for the city treasurer’s office in 1972.
Scott appears to have stayed out of the headlines for the next several years until Oct. 13, 1978, when she was found murdered inside her home in Idlewild. She was 48 years old.
Scott was serving as the director of the Lake County Child Development Center at the time. When she didn’t show up for work, one of her employees checked her secluded mobile home and discovered her nude body.
Scott had recently remarried men’s clothing store owner James Whittler but they were separated at the time of her death. Whittler was named a suspect in her murder, but later released.
Deputies said Scott had been brutally beaten, but a medical examiner said it was two or three gunshots to the back of her head that killed Scott.
Nearly a year after her murder, police arrested five people from Detroit for her murder, including the ex-wife of Scott’s estranged husband. One of the suspects died by suicide in the jail while awaiting trial.
One of the suspects, Charles Robbins, agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for testifying against the three other suspects. He testified that three of them feigned car trouble to get into Scott’s home. One of the men sexually assaulted Scott before shooting her twice in the face and cutting off two of her fingers as proof the contract killing was carried out.
Robbins said Scott was ordered to be killed before she could testify about the arson of her estranged husband’s clothing store. Whittler’s ex-wife and her friend — the suspect who died by suicide — were arrested for allegedly putting out the hit.
In 1983, a group of 10 Black organizations partnered with the Grand Rapids Junior College, now known as GRCC, to create the inaugural Giants Banquet. The annual event honors 18 Black leaders with awards named for Black civil rights leaders and industry pioneers who preceded them. Scott’s name was tied to the banquet’s activism award from the start.