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Race relations icon inspired Ala. pastor

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (BP)–Johnnie Carr, a lifelong friend of Rosa Parks and a civil rights icon who advanced reconciliation in Montgomery, Ala., died Feb. 22, days after suffering a massive stroke at age 97.

Jay Wolf, pastor of First Baptist Church in the city known for the bus boycott of 1955 following Parks’ refusal to yield her seat, had developed a friendship with Carr in recent years. Wolf described Carr, a longtime member of Hall Street Baptist Church, as “a James 1:22 follower of King Jesus. She was a ‘doer of the Word.'”

“Like many of the civil rights leaders, her living faith in the living Lord was the guiding rudder of her attitudes and actions. She was full of dignity, humility and authority,” Wolf said.

“God gave her an extra measure of wisdom and courage. She had a serene countenance and a consistent walk with the Lord Jesus. She was a prayer warrior and led with the quiet dignity of a person who had no other agenda except serving the Lord’s purposes.”

Wolf, pastor of First Baptist since 1991, joined with a group of black pastors and white pastors in Montgomery who began to pray under the umbrella of John 17:21, the verse which recounts Jesus’ prayer, “Father, may they be one so the world will believe.”

In preparation for the 2005 anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott that sparked the civil rights movement, Wolf said the “John 17 group” began developing plans “for acknowledging that much of the deep reconciliation that has occurred in Montgomery took place at the foot of the cross. I invited a group of leaders to lift up Christ as the reconciler, and Johnnie Carr became part of the leadership team.”

In conjunction with bus boycott anniversary, Wolf said he met many times with Carr and conducted a 90-minute interview with her that was broadcast on a local Christian TV station.

“It became this incredible oral history,” Wolf said, referring to Carr’s recounting of events that transpired during her lifetime in Montgomery. “They called me yesterday to say they were getting ready to replay that interview … She is one of the last icons to step off the scene.”

As children, Carr and Parks were students together at a place in Montgomery called Mrs. White’s School, according to the website for Hall Street Baptist Church, the African American congregation where Carr had been a member since 1939. Carr, like Parks, was familiar later in life with the daily trips on the Montgomery City Line bus.

“There were designated seating areas for Blacks toward the back of the bus,” the website recounts in its section on the civil rights era. “Blacks had to stand, many times with arm loads of packages, until the bus passed St. Margaret Hospital. If the seats in the front of the bus were empty, the bus driver would then announce to Blacks that they could sit. Johnnie Carr refused to sit.

“Also it was a time, when Blacks were shopping in elite stores, they were required to cover their heads before trying on hats. They were also required to cover their feet before being fitted for shoes,” the website says.

Carr received a call from her friend E.D. Nixon the day Parks refused to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus line and was arrested. Nixon, who soon would be a key figure in organizing the boycott, told Carr, “They have arrested the wrong woman now.”

Nixon helped establish the Montgomery Improvement Association, which served as a hub for the boycott, and Martin Luther King Jr., then a young pastor in Montgomery, became its first president. In 1967, Carr was elected the MIA’s fifth president, and she held the post until her death.

After the boycott, Carr set her sights on integrating the Montgomery Public Schools, and it was her victory in the case of Carr vs. Montgomery Board of Education that led to desegregation of the city’s schools.

Carr, her husband Arlam and their three children were bombarded with telephone calls following the ruling to integrate public schools, and the threats led them to install a fence around their home, according to the Hall Street Baptist Church website. The Carrs moved their bed from the outside wall of their home to an inner area for added protection during the tumultuous times.

“They retired each evening content with their faith in God’s Word as confirmed in Psalm 91:2 ‘… He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust,'” the website notes, recounting that Carr participated faithfully in Sunday School, in the choir and other areas and in the National Baptist Convention.

The last time Wolf saw Carr was at a community function about a year ago, he said. She often watched First Baptist’s “Crossroads” television program and told Wolf that the church’s ministry had encouraged her walk with the Lord.

“She gave me a host of unique insights into the civil rights era through her oral history,” Wolf said in recounting the impact Carr had on him. “The mid-50s were turbulent times. She taught me that the true driving force for the civil rights movement was the liberating Gospel truth of Jesus Christ.

“To know Jesus is to experience freedom,” Wolf said, referring to John 8:32. “Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Johnnie Carr and a galaxy of other civil rights leaders were ardent followers of Jesus Christ and utilized the Lord’s strength to proclaim His message of human worth, equality and freedom for all.”

Reports of her death, which ran in media outlets across the country, noted how Carr was active in racial reconciliation efforts even in the few remaining weeks she had in life. Just days before her stroke, Carr participated in a ceremony marking Martin Luther King Day in Montgomery, speaking after a parade.

“Every time I turned around, there’s Miss Carr,” Bobby Bright, Montgomery’s mayor, told the Montgomery Advertiser. What impressed him most about her, he said, was her positive attitude and habit of highlighting the best in others.

“She was always an encourager and not a divider,” Bright said. “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.”

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, at whose inauguration Carr spoke, said she “leaves behind a lasting legacy of pride, determination and perseverance.”

Christians today, Wolf said, have a role to play in carrying on Carr’s legacy.

“We need to keep proclaiming that the ground is level at the foot of the cross,” he said. “We need to stimulate revival by activating John 17:21 and fulfill the prayer of Jesus to ‘be one so the world will believe.'”

Wolf, speaking of how God has given him “a heart for racial reconciliation,” noted, “We all know that electricity cannot travel through a broken wire. In the same way, God wants to bring a far-sweeping spiritual awakening in these days but He cannot send the electricity of His revival-generating Spirit until His church is unified.”
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.

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