On an achingly cold, steel-gray Indiana Monday — a Monday like hundreds before and since — I received a very personal gift by way of a quiet hero from the civil rights movement, one that remains intertwined with my hopes for myself and the communities of which I am part.
That Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in January 2001, I was a senior at Taylor University. As part of our observance of the holiday, Taylor had invited Mrs. Johnnie Carr, the longtime president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, and her husband, Arlam Sr., to share their stories of the movement.
I had briefly met Mrs. Carr, a childhood friend of Rosa Parks, two years earlier, when I’d taken a course on the civil rights movement that involved traveling to significant sites and speaking to men and women who’d been part of the movement in their communities. Then, Mrs. Carr, a compact woman with soft gray curls and a matter-of-factness that spoke to her strength and will, told us about her decision to reshape her community, patiently answering our fumbling questions about a time we’d learned about mostly through readings and black-and-white footage. I left our time together awed by the ways great people, and great acts, are often cloaked in the everyday business of life.
When the Carrs came to campus, I was privileged to escort them to the King Day chapel and other events. A friend and I arrived at the campus guest house to greet them and to begin the day, groggily envious of Mrs. Carr’s early-morning energy as she gathered herself and prepared Mr. Carr for a full schedule.
The four of us walked slowly along the guest house porch toward the car, moderating our pace for Mr. Carr, who had a prosthetic leg and would spend most of the day in a wheelchair. As we paused, he swayed almost imperceptibly, then began a slow topple toward the edge of the porch.
I stood still, horrified and caught between the impulse to move and the stupid fear that doing so would somehow violate Mr. Carr’s dignity. But Mrs. Carr moved decisively toward her husband and encircled his waist with her arms.
They stood there for a few long moments, intertwined, exchanging strength and regaining steadiness. “Okay,” she breathed, and we moved, shaken but unscathed, toward the rest of our day.
I only remember the broad outlines of Mrs. Carr’s speech that day. But the moment I witnessed between the Carrs has left me with this very specific idea, this very specific hope, about marriage: That it’s about holding on, about steadying one another, whatever comes your way. It is at once simple and complicated, romantic and practical. It is catching and being caught, over and over again, as days become years, as years become seasons.
I don’t know anything about the Carrs’ marriage of more than 50 years, or what the landscape of their life together was like. Indeed, as a single woman, I peer at the mystery of marriage as through a glass darkly, trying to divine the shape of things from the periphery. I flirt with dating, trying to align hope with reality, figuring out in fits and starts whether, and on what terms, I’m willing to accept the complications of relationship.
As I study the civil rights movement, I’m aware of how many marriages struggled and floundered, bent and even broke under the strain of the struggle. I imagine that even more were reimagined and took new shape as this passion for justice caused people to refashion every part of their lives. Yet I’m grateful for what I observed in that moment between the Carrs, and for the legacy of marital steadiness I’ve seen in the lives of my parents and grandparents, married 33 and 58 years, respectively.
When I think about Barack and Michelle Obama, and the public meanings their partnership has taken on, I’m thrilled to see love “come out Blackly glowing,” as the poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote. But today, I’m reflecting on the prosaic love I saw between Johnnie and Arlam Carr.
African American history is bursting with intricately woven moments of joy, pain, ingenuity, resistance, and resilience — stories of risks taken and sacrifices made on behalf of a future our forebears could only have imagined. As a student of black history, I’m mindful of this every day. But Black History Month gives me special permission to remember the Carrs’ quiet but profound love once again.
Editor’s Note: Mrs. Carr passed away on Feb. 22, 2008, and died in 2005.