Shortly after I was transferred to the South to report on desegregation for the weekly Life magazine, I heard a story. It concerned a young black woman who had just been hired as a maid in a wealthy white household. After her first day at work, she returned home, and her family crowded around. They knew almost nothing about how white people lived — so wide was the gap between the races — and they were intensely curious.
They bombarded the young woman with questions: What did the house look like? What did they eat? And especially, what did they talk about? She looked at her family and answered with one word: ”Us.”
I was reminded of that story as I watched The Long Walk Home, a new movie about the famous Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott in the mid-1950s. I covered the boycott, and I wanted to see how badly the film had distorted this watershed event. I had few expectations. The last movie I saw based on modern Southern history was Mississippi Burning, an infuriating and fraudulent tale of the murder of three young civil rights workers.
Imagine my surprise when The Long Walk Home turned out to be brilliant, touching, and authentic. Whoopi Goldberg plays a maid named Odessa Cotter; Sissy Spacek is her upper-middle-class employer, Miriam Thompson. It is December 1955. Tired of crowding into the back of city buses and being sassed by redneck drivers, Montgomery blacks decide not to ride anymore. In this atmosphere of community tension, the movie explores the shifting relationship between the two women, the restrained militancy of one and the blossoming conscience of the other.
But of course the word ”blacks” is never heard. Depending on how polite a white Alabamian of that time wanted to be, black people were referred to as Negroes, coloreds, nigras, niggers. They were also, in author Ralph Ellison’s memorable term, ”invisible.” At Christmas dinner in the film’s elegant white home, with relatives around the table, conversation turns to the boycott and what ”they” really want. While Odessa is in the dining room serving, one mother-in-law delivers a sermon on ”niggers.” Miriam and her husband look vaguely uncomfortable, but say nothing. Odessa is impassive. It is a chilling moment; I sat through many like it during my four years in the South.
The leader of the Montgomery bus boycott was, of course, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., then 26. His voice is heard in the movie, but he is not portrayed. What is shown, and with gritty authenticity, are the morale-building rallies in black churches. One night in midsummer 1956 I was in the front pew at the filled-to-the-choir-loft Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. King preached eloquently, but what I remember about that evening was the stifling Alabama heat. King’s house had already been bombed, and against the real danger that dynamite might be tossed into the crowded church, all the windows were shut tight. People were fainting, and yet others pushed to get in.
What we journalists knew on such occasions was that the Montgomery boycott would inevitably end in victory for the blacks (as indeed it did with a Supreme Court decision). They were determined, organized, and most important, they were right. I think we also sensed, as Odessa forcefully points out to Miriam, that this triumph would be followed by others — in the schools, restaurants, hotels, and at the ballot box.
In those prefeminist days, white Southern women like Miriam Thompson were by and large powerless in a society run almost exclusively by men. Few worked; they relied on their husbands for money and validity. How Sissy Spacek transforms herself — subtle step by step — into a quietly defiant woman is totally believable. I watched it happen in much the same way time and again as the South began to change.
In The Long Walk Home, a sensitive script and two wonderful performances made me realize, perhaps as never before, that I had truly lived history. There was no shot heard round the world in Montgomery; only the gentle tread of weary walking blacks. And yet war had been declared. I am proud I was there.