Growing up in Western Montana, seeing a black person was a novelty. Concepts like discrimination, Civil Rights, racism, were all distant concepts that just were not discussed nor understood in my little area of the world.
Thankfully, the Air Force landed me for almost 17 years in the navel of slavery and Civil Rights, Montgomery Alabama. I’d like to share some of the things I learned while there.
Much of my church work was focused in the poorer sections of the city. In visiting with many in their homes, from small cottages to housing projects, I saw special strengths and needs in the blacks I came to know. I remember one sister we baptized telling me that in her previous church they would teach her to love her neighbor. For her, it meant loving other blacks, and still disliking whites, but she had learned to also love whites in the LDS Church.
Sadly, that attitude was not always reciprocated. As we baptized many blacks into the church, there was a backlash by various white members. Some refused to home/visit teach in black neighborhoods. Some complained about black sisters teaching in Primary. It took years for such racist attitudes to diminish in Montgomery, and even longer in the outlying branches.
In 1987 we started a group in Tuskegee Alabama, and it became a branch a year later. As the Group leader, I had the blessing to call the first Relief Society President, Eva Oryang. She is a wonderful lady, who escaped her homeland of Uganda during a very dangerous war and settled in Tuskegee. After only a few days, she wasn’t sure why she came to the United States, and prayed all night long for the answer. That morning, the missionaries showed up, and she was soon baptized. It wasn’t long afterward that the Group was started, so that these wonderful new members would not have to drive 40 miles each way to church in Montgomery. She would later serve a mission in Mississippi.
Her son would later be baptized and would serve for 8 years as the branch president. Through his efforts as a researcher at Tuskegee University, several students from Shanghai China were introduced to the gospel and baptized. They became some of the very first members in Shanghai when they returned.
Outside of Church, I attended Troy University in Montgomery. Going to class meant stepping across the street corner where Rosa Parks got on board a city bus, which started the memorable bus boycott. A good friend of mine, Bill Kline, who just passed away this month at 94, drove blacks around town to work, etc., during the bus boycott. He recalled having a cross burnt on his front yard for helping.
Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president on the front steps of the state capitol. This is also where George Wallace promised “segregation forever.” In stark contrast to such racism, we find across the parking lot sits the chapel where Martin Luther King jr preached.
Just 40 miles west is the famous bridge at Selma, where police officers and dogs set about hurting peaceful marchers. 90 miles north of Montgomery is the little Baptist Church that was blown up, killing 3 small girls, including Condoleeza Rice’s best friend.
One of the most important people I considered a friend and hero is Johnnie Carr. She was one of Rosa Parks’ best friends and was a key player in the bus boycott. She was the third president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (Martin Luther King was the first president). While most of the early Civil Rights leaders moved to other places, she stayed in her home next to the park where she used to take white children to play as their caretaker (blacks were not allowed in the park, otherwise). In her last days, she worked to help young people get away from gangs and drugs, and work towards college and making a difference.
Sadly, as I look at today’s “Civil Rights” movement, it seems to have forgotten the freedoms Martin Luther King jr hoped for all people, and become a movement to see who can get the most from the government. Still, as we focus on those black leaders of previous years, perhaps we can learn from them and the great examples they have given us. Examples of courage under fire, peaceful protest under violent threats, faith that God would bless their efforts, patience that someday we could all be free, and all would have equal opportunity to make the best out of their lives.
Let’s stop for a moment and remember these great people, and hope we can follow such example ourselves.