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 director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.