The Long Walk Home
When the bus arrived, it stopped a few yards ahead of where two black women were standing. The women walked quickly to the front doors and climbed the steps to deposit their fare into the money box. They then turned and climbed back down the steps to walk to another door at the back of the bus. As soon as they were inside, the doors closed with a snap and the bus speeded on its way, riding low in the back where a crowd of African Americans were forced to sit and stand, staring at the empty seats in the front section of the bus.
This first scene in the 1990 film, The Long Walk Home, depicts one of the customs of Montgomery, Alabama in the late 1950s, when the meaning of “separate but equal” was twisted to the desires of racists. As the film continues we follow the life of Odessa Cotter, an African American maid in the service of the deeply southern Thompson family. Odessa works all day as a cook, maid, and nanny for the Thompsons, returning home at night just in time to cook dinner for her own family and clean their modest home. One night, the African Americans of Montgomery hear of Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her seat for a white man on a bus, and they initiate a bus boycott. At first, the white people of Montgomery refuse to acknowledge the black population’s demands, believing that they will soon tire of walking to work everyday. As the months pass, African Americans are treated with increasing hostility, and the even police begin to persecute black carpools by following them and giving them tickets.
One day, Odessa’s daughter, Selma, decides to ride the bus to meet up with one of her friends. She ignores the boycott, and is on her way into town when three white boys also board the bus and harass her. When the bus driver stops to throw the boys out of the bus, Selma makes a run for it, and the boys chase her. As the boys surround Selma in an empty park, her brother, Theodore, comes to her rescue and shoves one of the white boys. Rather than continue to fight the boy though, Theodore follows the advice of Martin Luther King Jr. and practices peaceful resistance by allowing the white boy to beat him up. A taxi driver comes to his rescue and takes Selma and Theodore home.
With the level of danger escalating at an alarming rate, white people are forced to choose sides, supporting or opposing the plight of African Americans. Miriam Thompson, the wife of Norman Thompson and employer of Odessa, decides to support the boycott by driving for the black carpools. Odessa warns her that she will be supporting more than just equality on buses by helping with the boycott. She questions Mrs. Thompson’s resolve to help by asking her, “And what about when it isn’t just the buses? When it’s the parks and the restaurants? When it’s colored teachers in white schools? What about when we start voting, Mrs. Thompson, because we are, and when we do we’re gonna put negroes in office,” (The Long Walk Home). Understanding the extent of her involvement, Miriam decides to drive for the carpools anyway. At this point it becomes apparent that the bus boycott is more than a protest, it is the beginning of a nationwide movement.
On the other side of the boycott, Norman Thompson joins the majority of the white men of Montgomery and plans to invade one of the lots used for carpooling to break the boycott. All the events of the movie culminate to the final scene, when 150 white man converge on a car lot and attempt to intimidate and threaten African American women to quit the protest. However, in keeping with Martin Luther King Jr’s nonviolent civil disobedience, the black women form a line and begin to sing, showing the white men that they can not be deterred from their goal of obtaining equality and justice. The angry mob of white men slowly dissipates, and the picture fades to a screen that tells the audience that the Montgomery boycotts were a success, concluding on December 20, 1956, when a federal court ruling granted blacks the right to sit anywhere they wanted on buses.
Montgomery, Alabama in the late 1950s was a deeply southern and prejudiced town. White people tried to keep black citizens as close to being slaves as possible. The Confederate flag was not an uncommon symbol, and African American maids often served white families for decades and created relationships with family members, similar to the way in which black slaves stayed and interacted with white families on plantations. Even Montgomery, Alabama could not deny progress though, and in 1955, Martin Luther King Jr led the bus boycott that inspired the rest of the nation to protest. A spirit of hope was in the air, and African Americans rallied together, supporting each other throughout the hostile times.
The Long Walk Home illustrates the hope that African Americans maintained throughout their centuries-long struggle from slavery to near absolute freedom and equality. Scenes that depicted prayer meetings showed how involved the church was in African American culture of the deep south, and how entire communities would gather together to listen to preachers like Martin Luther King Jr for encouragement. The film focused on the nonviolent, peaceful version of political protest, and provides concrete evidence that although our first instinct is to fight back, by rising above instinct we can overcome any injustice or bigotry that lies in our way.