MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Johnnie Carr, who joined childhood friend Rosa Parks in the historic Montgomery bus boycott and kept a busy schedule of civil rights activism up to her final days, has died. She was 97.
Carr died Friday night [Feb. 22, 2008], said Baptist Health hospital spokeswoman Melody Ragland. She had been hospitalized after a stroke Feb. 11.
Carr succeeded the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association in 1967, a post she held at her death. It was the newly formed association that led the boycott of city buses in the Alabama capital in 1955 after Parks, a black seamstress, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to whites on a crowded bus.
A year later the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial segregation on public transportation.
“Johnnie Carr is one of the three major icons of the Civil Rights Movement: Dr. King, Rosa Parks and Johnnie Carr,” said Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “I think ultimately, when the final history books are written, she’ll be one of the few people remembered for that terrific movement.”
As the Improvement Association’s president, Carr helped lead several initiatives to improve race relations and conditions for blacks. She was involved in a lawsuit to desegregate Montgomery schools, with her then-13-year-old son, Arlam, the named plaintiff.
“She hadn’t been sick up until she had the stroke,” Arlam Carr said Saturday. “It was such a massive stroke that she never was able to recover from it. She was still very active – going around and speaking – but it was just one of those things.”
She played a prominent role in 2005 on the 50th anniversary of Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat, speaking to thousands of schoolchildren who marched to the Capitol.
“Look back, but march forward,” Carr urged the huge crowd of young people.
She also traveled to memorial services in Washington, where her eulogy of Parks was “really the most dynamic” moment, recalled Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“There were many people who spoke who were much better known … but she carried the day,” said Bond, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Just days before her stroke, Carr participated in King Day ceremonies in Montgomery, speaking after a parade. Admirers marveled at her energy and commitment into her 90s.
“She was always an encourager and not a divider,” Mayor Bobby Bright told the Montgomery Advertiser. “She was just a loving person. She was truly the mother figure that we all so desperately needed in Montgomery during a very trying period of our history.”
In a statement, Gov. Bob Riley said Carr was a “remarkable woman and will be deeply missed.”
She was a true inspiration, Riley said, and “leaves behind a lasting legacy of pride, determination, and perseverance.”
The family said funeral arrangements would be announced later. [note: funeral was held Saturday, March 1, at the Alabama State University Acadome in Montgomery, Ala.]
Arlam Carr said that his mother’s 97th birthday was last month, but that the only place her age showed was on paper.
“She was still driving her own car. How many 97-year-olds are still driving and you feel comfortable with their driving?” he said. “She has lived a very active life. If there’s one thing about it, we all know we’re going to leave here one day and this was just the time the Lord wanted her to ‘come on’.”
Dees said he, too, was impressed with Carr’s vigor and amazed that “she never showed the strain of age. Her voice was strong and her spirit was always cheerful.”
“One of the things I respect her for is she did not have the rancor and anger that so many local African-Americans of the civil rights movement had,” he said. “She was very willing to build bridges. Montgomery’s always been very divisive, and she showed an example of reaching across racial lines.”
In recent decades, civil rights landmarks, including the site where Parks was arrested, have become historic points of interest for tourists.
“When we first started, we weren’t thinking about history,” Carr told The Associated Press in an interview in 2003. “We were thinking about the conditions and the discrimination.”
Bond called Carr a “spark plug” and “one of the remaining links we had to the Montgomery bus boycott.”
“She was remarkable to have had such a long career and to have held concern for justice in the forefront for all this time,” he said. “It’s a great tragedy that she’s gone, and those of us who knew her are blessed to have that experience.”