Johnnie Carr (1911-2008) devoted her life to civil rights and to improving the lives of all the residents of her native Montgomery, Montgomery County. A stalwart supporter of civil rights from the earliest years of the movement, Carr was a key figure in the Montgomery bus boycott and in events that followed, including the Carr v. Montgomery County Board of Education school desegregation case. She remained politically active until her death in 2008 at the age of 97.
Johnnie Carr in 1966 Carr was born Johnnie Rebecca Daniels on January 26, 1911, in Montgomery to John and Annie Daniels; her father’s occupation was listed in the 1920 Census as farmer. Although her father died in 1920 when she was nine, Carr had a happy childhood. Because of her mother’s determination, she obtained an education at Miss White’s Industrial School for Girls, originally known as the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, a private school for African American girls that was founded in 1886 by Alice White and H. Margaret Beard, both white Christian reformers from the North. One of Carr’s classmates was Rosa McCauley, later known to the world as Rosa Parks. At 16, Carr married Jack Jordan, and the couple had two daughters before the marriage ended. After her divorce, Carr returned to school and took courses in nursing.
The 1930s were a formative period for Carr politically. She was inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s administration and also was influenced by the Scottsboro trials in 1931, raising money for the defense of nine African American men falsely accused of raping two white women. During the 1930s, Carr became an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She served as a secretary and a youth director for the organization under E. D. Nixon; through her work with the NAACP, Carr became reacquainted with Rosa Parks. When the city of Montgomery dumped manure in a park across the street from Carr’s house—a park that Carr could not enter because of her race—Nixon encouraged her to sue the city. Carr married Arlam Carr in February of 1944; they would have one child, Arlam Jr.
Rosa Parks and Johnnie Carr, 1985 When Rosa Parks was arrested in December 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, civil rights leaders immediately began organizing a bus boycott; the Carrs were fully behind the action. On the first day of the boycott, Carr followed along behind the buses because she was eager to see if it would be a success. Both Carr and her husband were present at the mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church on December 5, after Parks’s arrest, when it was determined that the boycott would continue. Both Carrs participated in the boycott by transporting workers.
Johnnie Carr, 1965 The Carrs took an even greater role in the civil rights movement in 1964 when they filed a suit against the Montgomery County Board of Education. They were approached by attorney Fred Gray, who had represented Rosa Parks, about suing the board on behalf of their son to desegregate the Montgomery public schools so that he could attend then all-white Sidney Lanier High School. The Carrs agreed and were initially joined by two other families in the suit, but the other families soon withdrew from the case. Although they knew the danger of becoming involved in such a lawsuit, the Carrs and their 13-year-old son continued with the case.
As the suit advanced, the Carrs received threatening and obscene phone calls almost daily. They moved their bed away from the front of the house in case a bomb was thrown but aside from that precaution altered little about their daily lives and refused to let neighbors guard the house. Federal judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. ruled in favor of the Carrs in Carr v. Montgomery County Board of Education on June 2, 1969, stating that the board had illegally operated a dual school system based on race. Arlam Carr Jr. then became one of 13 black students to integrate Sidney Lanier, ironically taking classes with the daughter of segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace.
Johnnie Carr and Rep. John Knight Carr became president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (an organization founded during the bus boycott) in 1967, remaining in the position until her death. She also was an active member of the United Way and a member of One Montgomery, an organization formed in 1984 to improve race relations in the city. In the 1970s and 1980s, Carr often lectured with activist and close friend Virginia Durr. She also wrote a memoir for young readers titled Johnnie. When Rosa Parks died in 2005, Carr delivered her eulogy. Well into her 90s, she still maintained a busy schedule and drove her own car.
Carr suffered a stroke and died on February 22, 2008. Her funeral at Alabama State University was standing-room only, attended by numerous state and local dignitaries. Actress Cicely Tyson read a poem in honor of Carr. A middle school in Montgomery is named in her honor.
Greenhaw, Wayne. Fighting the Devil in Dixie: How Civil Rights Activists Took on the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2011.
Hoffman, Roy. Alabama Afternoons: Profiles and Conversations. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2011.
Robinson, JoAnn Gibson. The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of JoAnn Gibson Robinson. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987.