I was perplexed at the commentary of Karl Fleming, a comrade-in-arms as a correspondent covering the civil rights wars of the ‘50s and ‘60s, denouncing the film “The Long Walk Home.”
As one who covered the Montgomery bus boycott and lived in that city for 20 years, I cannot name a specific white woman who drove in the black-organized carpools which ferried the maids to and from their work as did the character played by Sissy Spacek in the film based on the boycott. I can, however, point to quite a few individuals who expressed the sentiments implicit in this gesture.
I think, tragically, of Juliette Morgan, the quiet librarian who wrote sensitive letters to the newspaper before she committed suicide. I think of a band of brave white women who met with black women at St. Jude’s Catholic Church, about the only “integrated” place in Montgomery during that period--even though their own husbands in some cases repudiated them publicly. And I think especially of the redoubtable Virginia Foster Durr, who befriended Rosa Parks herself in a manner much as that depicted in the film.
To suggest that such people did not exist, as Fleming does, is the same as to say that there were no Germans who resisted Hitler 50 years ago.
To me, the character played by Spacek represented a composite character in a film which is, after all, a fictional account, and as such she is entirely plausible. It is preposterous to suggest that “The Long Walk Home” is as distorted as the notorious “Mississippi Burning,” which glorified FBI agents when everyone who covered the civil rights movement knew that they were just more red-neck sheriffs in suits and ties.
From a factual standpoint, I found “The Long Walk Home” to be a shade on the sentimental side, to be sure, but generally of the genre of “Driving Miss Daisy” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
It is noteworthy that the indomitable but ever-gentle Rosa Parks herself, in the story that ran beside Fleming’s bitter commentary, seems to share my view.
Incidentally, Parks found it unlikely that a mob might be stopped by someone singing a hymn. Curious as it may seem, I once saw that happen.
It was a bitter cold Sunday, March of 1961, when the tension generated by the bus boycott was at its peak in Montgomery. When a group of about 700 blacks emerged from a meeting in Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, they were confronted with a throng of about 5,000 white people who had gathered as a result of irresponsible live broadcasting on one of the town’s radio stations. I had concluded that a physical clash was all but inevitable, with dire consequences.
But at a critical moment, some of the black people on the front line began to sing a familiar church hymn. The whites paused, fell back a bit, and some actually joined in the singing. The tension was broken, which enabled the police to separate the confronting throngs and evacuate the area peacefully.
After witnessing that episode, I never again doubted the power of Southern black Christianity.