When I met Rosa Parks, I was too young to have much perspective on anything, but I did realize that I was meeting someone famous. I sat on the front porch of Virginia and Clifford Durr’s farm at “Pea Level” in Wetumpka, Alabama. Sandwiched between my mother and Ms. Parks, I perspired and fretted silently. There was no air conditioning, so the porch was the place to sit and drink iced tea and hope for a breeze.
Normally, I would have immediately run off down the well-worn path to Corn Creek in the woods behind the Durr’s cabin, built a section at a time, for the most part, with Cliff Durr’s own hands. But today, my mother—no doubt knowing this an educational opportunity not to be missed—had insisted I stay with the adults and meet Ms. Parks.
Clifford Durr often left the conversations up to Virginia, making himself scarce by fixing something, tending the pump or mysterious things that needed taking care of in the barn. I knew vaguely he had been an important man in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration and in the Civil Rights battles, a person who had affected history in many ways. But to me, he was the kind, gentle man who showed me how to negotiate the steep path down to the creek and patiently led me, perched atop his black horse, Nikki, through the woods, so I wouldn’t get lost. We always wound up at the far end of his pasture where he would turn us both loose to gallop home. Later, he bragged to everyone that I was the only person who could make old Nikki run. I suspected this was not true, as I didn’t “make” Nikki do anything. Like most horses, he was happy to run back to the barn, and I just held on, but I beamed with pride, anyway, at Cliff’s praise.
Virginia was what we Southerners would call “a piece of work, ” a complex, eccentric woman who became close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and a “den mother” hosting civil rights activists from across the country. She had worked tirelessly against the poll tax levied on black voters and equally hard for the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. She employed Rosa Parks as a seamstress, but they soon became close friends. Virginia obtained a scholarship for Rosa Parks to attend the Highlander Folk School where the young black woman learned about equality and became passionate about civil rights. At the time of her arrest, she was the secretary of the Montgomery NAACP.
At her farm in Wetumpka, Virginia entertained—or interrogated—visitors from around the world. She had earned the right to do so, apparently, because no one ever crossed her or denied her even the most intimate questions. I recall one young man in his twenties who had made the pilgrimage to her door being asked (after the obligatory demand, “Who are your people?”) whether he had a girlfriend, and then, to my adolescent horror, whether they had had sex yet. Hence, I normally fled to the creek.
But all this was far from my mind that summer afternoon when I sat with Rosa Parks, Virginia Durr, and my mother on the Durr’s porch. Grownup talk buzzed around me, and I was quiet for a while, itching to get released to play at the creek. Then my mother invited me to ask a question of Ms. Parks. To my surprise, I found I did have a question about what happened that day on the bus when she refused to give up her seat, that moment on December 1, 1955 that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, pushing Martin Luther King into a national leadership role and igniting the Civil Rights Movement. What I wanted to know was this: Had that moment been a spontaneous act or a planned one?
“What really happened that day on the bus?” I ventured of Ms. Parks, curiosity spiked by the conversation’s implication that it had been orchestrated in some way, which was not what I had learned in school. “Were you really just tired and didn’t want to get up?”
Rosa Parks turned to me with a good-natured chuckle, and said, “Oh, it was planned, child. I’d never have done it if I didn’t know that Mr. Durr and Mr. [E.D.] Nixon were there to bail me out.”
The moment burned itself into my memory because I felt betrayed and a bit angry. My teachers had taught something completely different, and, apparently, Ms. Parks had gone along with the tale. Why didn’t she correct them and tell the truth? Were they all using the “I was too tired to get up” story to somehow gain an advantage? And worse, Rosa Parks suddenly didn’t seem like the hero she had been, but a woman who knew she had a safely net all along.
It took many years before I realized my naivety and regained the respect due this brave woman. Having attorneys behind her guaranteed nothing in a world where the claws of the Ku Klux Klan reached deep into every institution, including law enforcement, jail guards, and even beneath the black robes of the judiciary. She knew very well what she was up against. It was a far more courageous act than it would have been had she simply acted out of a spontaneous, contrary urge. Indeed, her action had come with a cost that changed her life forever—she was fired from her job and could not find employment, and for many years afterward, she received death threats. Eventually, she had to leave the South.
I regret I did not spend more time with Rosa Parks or listening to Virginia Durr at Pea Level as she “held court” with the movers and shakers of the civil rights era or with the people who came to pay their respects and hear what it had been like “in the day.” My memories of Pea Level are more tied to hours spent riding old Niki or jumping barefoot from boulder to boulder, exploring the endlessly fascinating meanderings of Corn Creek in a haze of uncomplicated joy.
But those memories are precious; they live somewhere in the core of who I am. I like to hope, as well, that the air of civil and human rights I was privileged to breath in my youth—though I didn’t have the perspective to treasure—also helped shape and define who I am.
* AUM (Auburn University in Montgomery) sponsors the Durr Lectures every spring in honor of Virginia and Clifford Durr and their contribution to civil rights.
T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama) and retired director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.
Such an interesting and real tribute. I knew from reading that her action had been planned, but you anchor that knowledge in such a beautiful setting and story from your own life.
Thank you for your comment, Ruth. I never gave much thought about growing up around the Durrs and the flow of history. Writing LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE connected me to my past and opened my eyes.
I love the way you bring history to life through your craft. Bravo!
On an unrelated note, I wonder if you are related to the family in Montgomery that owns the Steiner-Lobman building with an intriguing roof. Rumor has it that it’s a sarcophagus. Any chance of a forthcoming tale about this mystery? Fingers crossed.
I have several favorite authors, but never considered myself a fan of one until I met Teresa. An excellent writer whose books I greatly enjoy, but also a fascinating woman of character. Thank you for the stories, fiction and non-fiction.
Pam, thank you for making my day!!!
Forever amazing….thank you for sharing that personal story. I’ve always believed as Faulkner said: “The past is not dead…it’s not even past.”
Thanks you for the kind words.
Actually, my mother’s side are the Lobmans of Steiner-Lobman and owned that building. They had a wholesale clothing business there for many years, and my father worked there for a while. He brought in black seamstresses who had been let go from another business to work side by side with the white workers. It caused quite a stir, as it was illegal in Montgomery to have blacks and whites sitting together. It was okay to have them sweeping the floor, etc. I have no idea what is in (or not) the building now.
Indeed! One day our grandchildren will say in amazement–“You were alive during 911?” And I will look over my glasses and say, “I was alive BEFORE cell phones, my dear!” LOL!
For a brief moment I was sitting on that porch with you. Teresa you have a way with words that transports the reader back through time yet reflects on the present and allows one to remain hopeful for the future. What a gift as an author to transcend time AND be a woman of valor and honor who continues to fight for civil and human rights daily.
Corn Creek looks like it may have been an idyllic adventure. Loved your candid recollections of having met Rosa Parks. In chapter six of Malcolm Gladwell’s book titled “David and Goliath,” he refers to a famous photo of a black teenage boy being attacked by a police dog in “Bombingham” and the result. The iconic photo shocked the world. A year later, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the real story behind this event is about Wyatt Walker, a black Baptist minister who habitually outfoxed the racists. How he did it is intriguing. It’s a must read.
Many thanks for your generous words, Fran. Earning the respect of friends is on my list for a successful life. I assure you that you have mine as well!
I remember meeting Vlrginia Durrell years after the civil rights movement when she seemed pretty old to me. I knew how famous and how special she was but she seemed like everyone else to me.
Oh my Harriet, if everyone seemed like Virginia Durr to you, you surround yourself with “interesting” people! 🙂
Seriously, we are all just people. Martin Luther King had his very real flaws, after all, as do all those we put on a pedestal in one way or another.
Enjoyed reading this! You have such an interesting life.
Thank you, Cindy. LOL, you know that is an old Jewish curse (and probably other ethnicities as well) –“May your life be interesting.”
Hi Nolan. Thanks so much for your comment and interesting reference to Gladwell’s book. I agree that “David and Goliath” was a fascinating and thought-provoking work. In my opinion, however, Gladwell used Walker as a conglomerate figure for the SCLC and ACHR, as there were several organizers, and they were all very well aware of the potential of using Bull Connor to create a confrontation that would get the attention of national media and the Kennedy brothers. The Children’s Marches were (in retrospect) a brilliant tactic, but there was a lot of controversy about it at the time, from the black community as well as the white, and had a child(ren) gotten hurt or killed, especially in a melee (there was some violence from bystanders at different times), it might have backfired. It was a tricky call.
Teresa, Thank you for this wonderful story told wonderfully well! Your putting into perspective the dangers that attended Rosa Parks’s actions, despite her motivations, is valuable knowledge for folks to have if they want to judge what she did or why she did it. With few exceptions, I think the good of the deed is in the deed and not in the motivation of the doer. Certainly Rosa Parks’s courageous “deed” that day was a catalyst for needed change, regardless of her motivation. Thank you for your story that feeds the fire that drives that change. I bet, using this story, you could craft yet another great book! All the best, mike
Mike, thank you for your comments. I think that is a very thought-provoking question about judging the deed by the deed or by the motivations. You side with the deed, yet in criminal law, motivation is the key. It can mean the difference between a felony or a misdemeanor, or a crime and an accident. Yet, there are times when it is simply the deed. If you kill someone accidentally, but you are driving while intoxicated, it is the deed that matters. If you shoot someone accidentally while hunting, it is the motivation that matters. It matters that Hitler killed millions, although his motivation was to create a “better” race and “improve” humanity. Does it matter that Michael Brown never put his hands up in the air (as at first reported)? To a lot of people, it does not. The symbol expresses something important for them, so it becomes a “fact,” just like Rosa Park’s being “too tired to get up.” Maybe it’s important to look at both and form judgements about what matters on a case by case basis. Hmmm, I think you may have just motivated another blog post!
I should have stated that I was referring to good deeds and the motivations that drive them.
Of course, even then there will be gray areas as different folks assess the goodness or badness of a particular deed.
Always a slippery slope and your milage may vary! 🙂
I agree totally with Mike…another delightful book, maybe?
I agree with Mike completely…and hoping for another delightful book, maybe???
I am working on a book, Trixie–Behind the Magic Curtain: A Look into the secrets and unsung heroes of Birmingham’s civil rights days (or something like that; it’s a working title).