Civil rights activist
Most people know of Rosa Parks and her historic refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a crowded bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. But many other women also played important roles in the events leading up to and following that landmark moment. One of them was the civil rights activist Johnnie Carr, who helped organize the Montgomery bus boycott sparked by Parks's defiance. For more than fifty years, Carr worked tirelessly to combat racial discrimination and to achieve equal opportunity for all Americans, regardless of color.
During the 1950s Carr worked to register black voters in the South and served at the polls to ensure they had the chance to cast ballots. As president of the Montgomery Improvement Association from 1967—she succeeded the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in the post—until her death at age ninety-seven, Carr led initiatives intended to end racial segregation on public transportation and in schools. Though her accomplishments are not as well known today as those of Parks and King, Carr nonetheless deserves to stand alongside them as an icon of the civil rights movement.
Johnnie Rebecca Daniels was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on January 26, 1911, one of six children of farm owners John and Annie Daniels. Her father died when she was just nine years old, leaving her mother to raise the large family alone. Annie Daniels stressed the importance of education and church attendance to her children. Johnnie attended the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, known among the students as Mrs. White's School, a private academy for black girls founded by white women from the North. There she began a lifelong friendship with the classmate Rosa McCauley, later known as Rosa Parks. The school closed in 1927, however, before either of the girls could graduate. Johnnie took a job as a domestic to help support her family.
At age sixteen Johnnie married Jack Jordan and soon had two daughters. When the marriage ended, Johnnie returned to school, finishing her junior high education (there were no high schools open to her) and then taking courses in nursing. She practiced nursing until a fellow parishioner at the Hall Street Baptist Church suggested that she could earn more working at the Atlanta Life Insurance Company. She worked in the insurance industry until 1976, in addition to her growing civic commitments. While participating in the burgeoning civil rights movement, she met Arlam Carr Sr. The two were married on February 12, 1944, and they had one son.
Carr became involved in community service during the 1940s after attending several meetings of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Inspired by its mission, she served as the organization's secretary, alternating in the position with Parks. She also became active in the Women's Political Council, an association of African-American women that sought to promote civic involvement among blacks and pushed city leaders to remedy racist policies. Notably, Carr and other council members met several times with city leaders to discuss the unfair treatment of blacks on Montgomery's city buses.
The year 1955 marked a watershed in the civil rights movement. On December 1 of that year, Parks, pushed to the limits of her patience with Montgomery's racially segregated public transportation system, refused to give up her seat to a white man on a crowded city bus. Even though members of the Women's Political Council had discussed a formal protest of segregated busing, Parks's act of defiance on that day was spontaneous—she had simply had enough. When Carr learned of her friend's arrest, she was stunned: How could such a diminutive woman make such a monumental statement?
Parks's arrest set into motion the landmark Montgomery bus boycott, during which black residents and civil rights supporters refused to ride on city buses. Originally intended to be a one-day protest, the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association, formed just days after Parks's arrest, decided to continue the boycott until their demands for fair treatment were met. The boycott lasted 381 days, until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the city's segregated busing policy on December 20, 1956. An estimated forty-two thousand people took part in the protest.
Even though King, as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, was the public face of the boycott, Carr was a key organizer of the campaign—one of many women who worked behind the scenes. She marshaled volunteers to distribute flyers, spoke at rallies in Alabama and across the country, drove a carpool for boycotters, and even cooked food for demonstrators.
In 1964 Carr was involved in a lawsuit against the segregated Montgomery public school system, naming her own son, Arlam Carr Jr., as a plaintiff. The suit succeeded and the school system was integrated, allowing the young Arlam to attend Sidney Lanier High School the following year.
Carr succeeded King as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association in 1967. Under Carr's watch, the organization continued the work initiated by Parks and King a decade earlier. She worked on behalf of the Montgomery Improvement Association well into her nineties, displaying a vigor and enthusiasm that younger activists envied. Many younger leaders in the black community referred to Carr as "Mama."
At a national memorial for Parks in 2005, Carr delivered an uplifting address to a crowd in Washington, DC. The Washington Post indicated that later that year, on the fiftieth anniversary of Parks's historic act of civil disobedience, Carr addressed a group of school-children who marched to the U.S. Capitol, urging them to "look back, but march forward." Committed to the civil rights cause until the last days of her life, she spoke at the annual Martin Luther King Day parade in Montgomery just a few weeks before she was hospitalized for a stroke. Carr died on February 22, 2008, in Montgomery at the age of ninety-seven.
At a Glance …
Born Johnnie Rebecca Daniels on January 26, 1911, in Montgomery, AL; died February 22, 2008, in Montgomery, AL; daughter of John (a farm owner) and Annie (Richmond; a domestic servant) Daniels; married Jack Jordan, 1927 (divorced); married Arlam Carr Sr. (a civil rights activist), February 12, 1944 (died 1995); children: Annie Bell Jordan Beasley, Alma Lee Jordan Smith, Arlam Carr Jr. Religion: Baptist. Education: Attended Montgomery Industrial School for Girls.
Career: Insurance agent, late 1920s-1976; Montgomery Improvement Association, president, 1967-2008.
Memberships: Alpha Kappa Alpha; Leadership Montgomery; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; One Montgomery; United Way; Women's Political Council; Young Men's Christian Association.
Awards: Awarded honorary doctorates by Alabama State University, Selma University, and the Interdenominational Theological Seminary; Citizen of the Year, Montgomery Advertiser, 1995; Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award, Southern Poverty Law Center, 2004; Spirit of Alabama Award, 2004.
Even though Carr's work largely went unheralded during her life, her work put her among the great leaders of the civil rights movement of the twentieth century. The Washington Post noted that Morris Dees, the cofounder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said of her work on behalf of civil rights, "Johnnie Carr is one of the three major icons of the Civil Rights Movement: Dr. King, Rosa Parks and Johnnie Carr…. When the final history books are written, she'll be one of the few people remembered for that terrific movement."
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New York Times, February 26, 2008.
The Times (London), March 9, 2008.
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"Carr, Johnnie Rebecca Daniels (1911-)," Martin Luther King Jr. Encyclopedia,http://www.stanford.edu/group/King/about_king/encyclopedia/carr_johnnie.html (accessed June 10, 2008).
"Civil Rights Icon Johnnie Carr Eulogized," MSNBC, March 2, 2008, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/23434620/ (accessed June 10, 2008).
"The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955-1956," Montgomery Advertiser,http://www.montgomeryboycott.com/frontpage.htm (accessed June 10, 2008).
The Rosa Parks Story, CBS Television, 2002.
—Deborah A. Ring