Sometimes it is the end of a journey that lets you see where you’ve been. The recent passing of Rosa Parks has had that effect on many in the United States and around the world. Among those who reminisced about the historic action of this humble woman and its far-reaching consequences were three who were there in 1955. Or at least they were close by.
Laura Smith and Dorothy Webb had known each other only about one year in 1955. They were both baptized as new members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as teenagers in the autumn of 1954. A young, charismatic preacher by the name of E.E. Cleveland had set up a large tent in Montgomery, Alabama that summer and by the end of that year, the small black Adventist congregation there had grown by 500 new members. This astonishing growth rate—the church originally only had 35 members—meant a new church building was needed.! Cleveland extended his tent meetings into the colder months, using large heaters inside the canvas walls of the tent. Work moved quickly on a new large church building. In December 1954, the tent meetings ended and on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, the new church was opened.
The impact of such a large tent meeting on a relatively small city such as Montgomery meant that everybody in town knew about the meetings, which drew people from all over town and from many of the local congregations. One night at the tent, Cleveland remembers coming upon a small group in intense conversation. Two visiting ministers were talking with two of his assistants.
One was Ralph Abernathy, pastor of the 1,000-member First Baptist Church in Montgomery and the other, a man about 10 years younger than Cleveland. Next to Rosa Parks, this man would come to symbolize the very essence of the civil rights movement. This man was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, the new pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The two pastors had heard that many of their members were attending these meetings and had come to see what it was all about. King and Cleveland spoke briefly, but not for the last time—a few years later, King would welcome Cleveland as a fellow-laborer for civil rights.
Another person who was known to attend those tent meetings many nights that summer was a lady well-respected in the community and active with the Women’s Political Council and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)—a Mrs. Rosa Parks.
It was one year later when Mrs. Parks’ famous refusal to change her seat sparked change in Montgomery and, indeed, the world. It was an incident that altered the destiny of these three who passed through the Adventist tent that summer (King, Abernathy and Parks) but it also had a profound impact on another three and the larger church they represented.
Cleveland remembers that, within the Adventist Church, the official stance was one of non-involvement, to stay out of political or revolutionary causes. The Church may have been out of the mix during that time, says Cleveland, but its members were not. While some of the old saints who had been in the church for years didn’t want to get involved (they were the “wait and see’ers” said Cleveland) the new believers were an active bunch.
Dorothy Webb was 15 years old at the beginning of the boycott and, like most teens, she was ready to go where the action was. And like most parents, Dorothy’s wanted their children to be safe. They were forbidden to go over to “those meetings,” she said.
“Those meetings” were held at the large community churches, such as Holt Street Baptist and Day Street Baptist, where thousands gathered each week during the boycott. The black community was attempting something that had never been done to this degree before. A couple years earlier in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a few days of boycott had resulted in accepting a compromise that brought about little change and people went back to life much as it always was. In Montgomery, as King wrote later, “the once dormant and quiescent Negro community was now fully awake” and this spirit had to be kept alive for the long haul to make a significant difference. The weekly meetings were the pep rally for the boycott.
Dorothy missed the first two meetings, but at the next one, finding herself and her younger sister in the neighborhood, they decided to drop by to see what was going on, despite the warnings of her parents. They couldn’t get in—thousands packed the church from the basement to the balconies and out on the lawn—but from outside they could hear the voices of King and the others.
“We had never thought about segregation till that time,” says Dorothy. “That’s just the way things were and we had been brought up thinking we were inferior; that whites had their place and ours was beneath theirs. These meetings sparked an awareness in us kids that things could—indeed should—be different. We got caught up in the spirit of the community and of course we walked and didn’t ride the buses from then on. We told our parents later, after the meeting, and while they warned us of the dangers, they let us continue to go.”
Laura Smith, in her late teens at the time, had a job as receptionist at a photo studio that kept her busy during the time of the meetings. She couldn’t attend, but she did alter her routine and no longer rode the bus to work. She got rides as part of the boycott.
Laura remembers that although Rosa Parks’ arrest was the spark of the boycott and a women’s group, the Women’s Political Council, had made the first call for the boycott, men took over the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. She, however, remembers Mrs. Parks as being known for her gentle spirit, ladylike manner and a character above reproach.
Dorothy remembers the impact of Mrs. Parks, but as a younger teen in that day, also remembers another focus of trying to make a difference. One incident she recalls is when she and a group of young Adventist members—who were relatively new to the Church—decided to pay a visit to the Adventist church in the other part of town, where the white Adventists attended. The group was met with a closed door in their faces and the threat that police would be called if they didn’t leave. They left.
But things are different now, muses Dorothy, and she thinks that a lot of those differences would not have happened had not Rosa Parks remained in her seat on the bus and provided the impetus for change.
Change did happen, and Adventist church members were a part of it. Many Adventist members and ministers became involved, from the early days following the bus boycott to the well-known March on Washington (1963) and the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965. And Adventists played an integral role in the Poor People’s March on Washington following Dr. King’s death in 1968. Through E.E. Cleveland’s membership and involvement in King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), along with church leaders from other areas, the Church was presented with much-needed supplies and organization to help make that march a success.
Dorothy Webb went on to school at Tuskegee Institute (now University) in Alabama and came back to Montgomery in 1963 when a federal mandate declared that federal offices had to be integrated. She was recruited for a job in the Social Security office in Montgomery and, as its first black employee, along with her friend Ruby, was written up in the local paper. The treatment she received while in that pioneering job she doesn’t want to talk about. Webb continues to live in Montgomery.
Laura Smith, who noted the women’s role in the beginnings of the movement, is now the Women’s Ministry leader for the Southern Union of Seventh-day Adventists. She and Dorothy are still members of the Bethany Seventh-day Adventist Church, which still worships in the same (renovated) structure built so quickly in 1954.
E.E. Cleveland retired after baptizing thousands on six of the seven continents but still preaches most weekends, traveling from his home in Huntsville, Alabama.
The bus seat Rosa Parks kept that afternoon half a century ago helped to make a difference in a nation, an impact on the world, and it also influenced a church, a view clearly seen when looking back from the end of Mrs. Parks’ remarkable journey.