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In the Presence of a Giant: Johnnie Carr

I was privileged to meet Mrs. Johnnie Carr more than 20 years ago. I was a young journalist on an assignment from UPI radio to mark the 30th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott. I visited her Hall Street home, just across the street from the park where years before she wasn't allowed to take her children because of their race. The only black women allowed were maids caring for their young white charges.

Mrs. Carr welcomed me into her prim living room and offered me a glass of tea. I listened as she took me back in time to a place I'd only read about in textbooks. She talked of Martin Luther King, the charismatic young minister at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the Monday night mass meetings where boycott participants rallied for the week ahead and the carpool system she helped orchestrate to get people to work when they weren't riding the buses.

I realized I was in the presence of a giant, that the tenacity of this gentle grandmotherly figure and others like her had literally changed the nation.

Johnnie Carr spent the rest of her days challenging segregation and was on a personal mission to end racial strife in her hometown. She took over as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association in 1967 — a position she held until her death. Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright called her "the mother figure we all so desperately needed" during a trying period in our history.

Mrs. Carr was there in 2005, when the city marked the 50th anniversary of the bus boycott.

"And to me, to come here today and for us to be honoring the memory of what happened at that particular time," she said then, "should give us inspiration, information so that we can go forward for the thing that Rosa Parks started when she refused to give up her seat and was arrested right here on this spot, so this spot has a lot of meaning here, and I think we should think about that, and to the organizations that are honoring her memory for what she did, all of us should thank God for Rosa Parks."

And for Johnnie Carr, who never stopped pushing for progress. She died Friday night at a Montgomery hospital after suffering a stroke earlier this month. The week before her stroke, Mrs. Carr visited schools to share her story with a new generation. Maybe someday those students will understand they were in the presence of a giant.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.