“Bryan, Rosa Parks is coming to town… Do you want to come over and listen?”
My favorite scene from Just Mercy (the book) didn’t make it into Just Mercy (the movie). This may have been for the best, as I don’t like crying in theaters. But anyway:
The woman who invited Bryan to “listen” to a conversation with Ms. Parks was Johnnie Rebecca Daniels Carr, an under-the-radar hero of the civil rights movement.
Carr and Parks were childhood friends. While Rosa became the public face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Johnnie is credited with much of the behind-the-scenes organizing work that made the protest feasible.
Something I hadn’t fully processed until reading Twitter and Tear Gas was that people still had to get to work.
“The boycotters were not wealthy and needed transportation to and from their jobs.”
Black folks made up 75% of bus ridership in Montgomery. The boycott was initially conceived as a one-day protest, but community members decided they wanted to keep going. Some folks walked — some long distances — but thousands of people needed alternative rides.
Activists organized a massive carpool.
Zeynep Tufekci says that over 300 private citizens used their cars to give rides to passengers from 40 pickup and dropoff stations, from 5:00 AM until 10:00 PM, every work day.
The boycott — and the carpool — went on to last over a year.
In Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson points out that it was Ms. Johnnie Carr who did much of the organizing work (“heavy lifting”) that kept this unfathomable feat of logistics up and running.
Eventually, she took over as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, succeeding Dr. King after his assassination. And she stayed active until her death in 2008.
When she first met Bryan Stevenson in Montgomery, she said: “I’m going to call you from time to time and I’m going to ask you to do this or that… You’re going to say ‘Yes, ma’am,’ okay?”
And so Bryan ends up on a porch in Alabama with Carr, Rosa Parks, and Virginia Durr, another friend and activist from the civil rights movement. He is invited to listen as the ladies talk.
Some hours into their conversation, Parks finally turns to Bryan and asks him to explain his work. He rambles a bit about EJI and fighting racial bias in the courts and trying to end the death penalty.
“Ooooh, honey,” says Rosa Parks. “All that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.”
Then Johnnie Carr leans in and raises a finger — Bryan says it was like how his grandmother used to talk to him — and says: “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”
Rosa Parks is (rightfully) a household name and Bryan Stevenson is now a bestselling author portrayed on the big screen by Michael B. Jordan (😍). But it’s Johnnie Carr who makes me emotional: the organizer, the underdog, the unsung hero.
“Look back, but march forward,” she told a crowd on the 50th anniversary of the boycott.
“Look back, but march forward.”