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‘The Long Walk Home'--Four Views : Karl Fleming Missed the Point

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How does The Times have the audacity to run an article entitled “Bus Boycott: The Way It Really Was” by reporter Karl Fleming, who never covered Montgomery during the bus boycott? It is clear from Fleming’s writing that he has little knowledge of Montgomery in 1955-56. Mainly, Fleming tries to tell us how “The Long Walk Home” misrepresents life in Montgomery, Ala., during the boycott. But it is Fleming who has to stoop to misrepresentations.

Fleming questions a scene where a white Montgomery housewife, Miriam Thompson, has a white policeman apologize to a black maid, Odessa Cotter. Fleming states, “That a white Southern cop, or any white person, for that matter, would apologize to any black person for anything . . . is extremely unlikely in that era.”

Fleming’s doubts do not change the fact that just such an apology was made in the mid-'50s in Montgomery--for the reason cited in the film. What Fleming does not discuss is Miriam’s rationale (“I will not have my judgment impugned”); Odessa’s husband’s very accurate assessment (“That policeman was apologizing to her (Miriam), not you”), and even the Montgomery police commissioner’s reasons for sending the policeman out to apologize (“the police department has to keep its nose clean”).

Fleming, as an experienced reporter, should be able to accurately report moments from the film. He writes: “At movie’s end we see a threatened Mrs. Thompson and Odessa holding hands and silencing and facing down a raving mob of whites with only the quiet strength of their moral superiority.”

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An interesting scene, but not one in the movie. Miriam Thompson never takes Odessa Cotter’s hand. Odessa Cotter makes a choice to confront a potentially violent crowd--and she does so alone. As others understand her action, she is joined by about 20 black women who use nonviolent resistance to face down a mob of whites. Miriam only watches. It becomes apparent that the whites, without the shield of robes or police badges, will not resort to violence--for the moment.

After the immediate danger has passed, another woman--not Odessa--holds out a hand to Miriam. Odessa’s reaction is far more questioning than accepting. Fleming does a grave injustice to the intent of the film to claim that Miriam is “the central heroic figure” in this scene or even the movie. The scene, the courage and the strength belong to Odessa.

Fleming raises the issue of whites supporting the boycott. But what chance would Fleming give a socially prominent white woman from Montgomery sponsoring a noted interracial organization such as the Highlander Folk School?

Not only did Virginia Durr offer sponsorship to the school, she recommended that a black seamstress spend a week at the school. The seamstress, according to Taylor Branch in “Parting the Waters,” returned “to say that her eyes had been opened to new possibilities of harmony between the races.”

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The seamstress was Rosa Parks. Virginia Durr and her husband Clifford went to the police station on Dec. 1, 1955, to post bail for Parks when she was arrested in the incident that sparked the boycott. White members of an interracial prayer group wrote signed letters to the paper in support. Many of these women would pick up and drive black women whom they saw walking during the boycott. Three men from Maxwell Air Force Base, along with the Rev. Robert Graetz and his wife, are cited by Martin Luther King Jr. as whites who drove for the black-run car-pool system.

Fleming’s questioning of even meeting with blacks ignores the fact that in 1955, Alabama Gov. Jim Folsom sat in the governor’s mansion in Montgomery and drank bourbon with black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. That the meeting happened shows that the ironies of the times are far more interesting than Fleming may remember.

Yet, Fleming is much more insidious in referring to the black characters as “background players.” I could not disagree more. Maybe through Fleming’s white-man eyes he could only see Miriam Thompson as significant. But that ignores the dramatic weight carried by Odessa Cotter. He takes her silence as a sign that she is “passive,” yet she is the one who tells Miriam that she must have a modicum of respect, or she will “have to quit” her job as maid. She is the one who, by the end of the film, has found the strength to confront a racist mob in an act of courage exemplified by so many during the time.

On the other hand, Miriam Thompson is, as Sissy Spacek put it, “a woman who does all the right things for all the wrong reasons.” However, it is through a slow realization brought on by her confrontations with Odessa that she finds herself politically on the other side of the fence from most of white Montgomery.

Does the fact that a lone sympathetic white character exists in “The Long Walk Home” make the film “about as far from reality as one could get”? No. The film centers around two fictional characters, and two fictional families. But all the background information is correct. Conversations, attitudes and social customs are accurately portrayed. As Rosa Parks herself stated, the film’s “tone is right, the events could have happened.” That is the test of good fiction. And this film should not be judged as a documentary.

The film was shown in Montgomery on Dec. 2--35 years to the day that leaflets were distributed calling for the boycott. A crowd of blacks and whites attended, and the response was very emotional. Many in the theater had been part of the historical fabric that the story relies upon. Some had been (and still are) members of the board of the Montgomery Improvement Assn., the organization created to manage the boycott. The applause meant more to me than anything.

The following night, I attended a meeting celebrating the 35th anniversary of the organization at the Holt Street Baptist Church. I came as an observer but was asked to sit behind the pulpit and even speak to those gathered.

Later, Mrs. Johnnie Carr, the president of the group, and a very active member during the boycott, spoke. She said, “I don’t know if you or John knows how remarkable it is that he is here today. How remarkable it is that he could have written ‘The Long Walk Home.’ ”

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In so few words, she managed to bring forth the arc of history for me. The remarkable thing was not that I, a white boy from the other side of town, was in a black church, but that I was exactly where I wanted to be. Exactly where Carr wanted me to be. I had not helped her or any of the others present gain civil rights, respect or a sense of self-worth. The opposite was true. Carr provided me with the illumination. . . just as the fictional black maid, Odessa, did for the fictional white housewife in “The Long Walk Home.”

And that is exactly the point that Fleming missed.


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