Troy University’s Rosa Parks Museum teamed with a pair of partners from the United Kingdom on Friday for a virtual event to mark the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The event was co-presented by the museum, the non-profit organization Heartstone and the Preston and Western Lancashire Racial Equality and Diversity Council.
“The Rosa Parks Museum was honored to partner with Heartstone UK and Preston & Western Lancashire in this very meaningful online event to mark the continued efforts of those across the globe who are standing against racism, prejudices, and biases,” said Donna Beisel, Assistant Director and K-12 Education Coordinator at the Rosa Parks Museum.
The event featured three sections – stories from the past, stories from the present and stories for the future.
Among the presenters sharing stories from the past was Dr. Valda Harris Montgomery, who was born in Montgomery on Dec. 1, 1947, eight years to the day prior to the arrest of Rosa Parks for her refusal to relinquish her seat to a white male passenger aboard a Montgomery city bus.
“On Dec. 1, 1955, I was celebrating my eighth birthday, but that day would not be about me but rather about Rosa Parks and the birth of the modern Civil Rights Movement,” Dr. Montgomery said. “That is where my involvement started. I was amazed at the solidarity the people of the movement and the way that they stayed together through the 381/382 days of the boycott. They had to endure the bombings, the racial slurs and all of the hatred.”
One of the most notable acts of hatred to occur at the time was the bombing of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage, home at the time to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King. The parsonage was located in the Centennial Hill area, the most prominent African American neighborhood of that time in the city of Montgomery. The bombing not only impacted the parsonage, but also other homes in the area, including the childhood home of Dr. Montgomery.
Dr. Montgomery’s father, Richard Harris, was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, a pharmacist and owner of Dean’s drug store. The drug store was an important meeting place for strategy sessions and planning during the boycott. Later, the family’s home would provide a safe haven for the Freedom Riders during their stop in Montgomery.
“Some of them came in and literally collapsed in our kitchen,” Dr. Montgomery said. “When they got ready to leave our house to go on to Jackson, Mississippi, they lined up and walked out. My mother said they looked like lambs going to the slaughter.”
Witnessing these events and the courage of these individuals first hand, along with her parents’ involvement, led Dr. Montgomery to become involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a young person.
She attended St. Jude Education Institute, which would serve as another catalyst to her involvement. The school grounds served as a campsite for peaceful protestors during the Selma to Montgomery March.
Following graduation from high school, Dr. Montgomery entered Fisk University in Nashville. It was during her time as a college student that she and the rest of the nation witnessed the events of April 4, 1968 – the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“That was the day, the first day, that I truly felt hate,” she said. “For me this was personal. This was someone I had known since I was six years old.”
Dr. Montgomery said it was important for older generations to continue to share the stories of the past with today’s youth.
She encouraged youth not to let the recent incidences of racial violence in the U.S. and around the world stir up anger but rather ignite a passion for change.
“You have to look inside of yourselves and be honest with yourselves,” she said. “I know there are a lot of people who are filled with anger over recent events. I encourage you to change your anger to passion. Don’t change the way you feel about these acts, but change that anger to passion and use that passion to bring about change.”