Repost: A story about car keys

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, here’s a re-post on a lesser known (but no less inspirational) story from the civil rights movement.


I don’t know if it’s because of the inspiring speech from the Great Oakland Public Schools fundraiser tonight, or if it’s my hypersensitivity to the caffeine from the Thai Iced tea I had at lunch, but I can’t sleep right now.  So why not spend this time doing one of the things I wanted to do more of this year – write on this blog!

I want to share a story with you about car keys, that Mike Johnston told during his keynote speech at tonight’s fundraiser.  For those of you who don’t know of Mike Johnston, he’s someone who has been very active in education reform.  He helped found New Leaders for New Schools, is currently a State Senator in Colorado, and wrote a transformation ed reform bill in Colorado, that has sparked similar ed reform bills in 14 other states.  He’s also recently been featured as one of Time Magazine’s 40 under 40.  Look him up.  He’s awesome.

Anyway, since so many people say education is the next big civil rights issue, Mike Johnston decided to do some research on the original civil rights movement.  What were the things that worked, what mistakes were made, and what can we learn.  In his research, he reviewed some documents about the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama.

Many people know the story of how Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white person, and how Dr. MLK Jr. helped kickoff the boycott with a speech at Holt Street Baptist Church.  Thousands of people came together to figure out how they could get everyone to and from work while boycotting the entire bus system for a day.  And it was a huge success.  But a single day of boycotting buses wasn’t going to bring the system to a standstill.  They would have to continue the boycott until their point was made.  At the end of that first day, when all of the participants gathered back together, someone asked, “So what are we going to do now?” 

At that point, a woman named Mary Jo Smiley raised her hand and said, “I have a car.”

“I have a car, and in that car, I can take 20 people in this room to work, back home, wherever they need to go.”

And that’s what she did.  Every day, she took her car, and took 20 people to work, back home from work, to the grocery store, to the post office, wherever they needed to go, so that the boycott could continue.  She did this, every day, for 381 days. 

It wasn’t easy.  The people trying to break the boycott found out that she was using her car to help people get around, so they arrested her for conspiracy.  They put her in jail.  The leaders of the boycott heard about this and immediately went to bail her out.  When Mary Jo Smiley was released, the leaders went to her and said, “We are so sorry you were thrown in jail.  We are so sorry this happened to you.  We totally understand if you don’t want to do this anymore.”

Mary Jo Smiley waved them away and said “Stop.  I need my car keys.  Because there are 20 people out there who need to get to work, and if I don’t get my car keys right now, they’re not going to be able to get there.”

Mike Johnston talked about the concept of first-liners and last-liners.  The first line of the Declaration of Independence is:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

It’s a line that we learn in history class, which probably sounded familiar as I said it, because it is quoted so often.  But no one really talks about the last line of the Declaration of Independence.  The last line reads:

And for the support of this Declaration … we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The first line of that document, We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, wouldn’t mean a thing if it weren’t for the last line, and for the support of this Declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.  That declaration wouldn’t have any substance, and would not have survived 200+ years, if it weren’t for all of those people who were willing to die on the battlefield to defend it.

Every cause has its first-liners, its MLK, Jr. and its Rosa Parks, to galvanize the movement.  But what brings meaning to the cause, what brings about true change, are all of those last-liners, people like Mary Jo Smiley, who was willing to commit, her life, her fortune, her sacred honor, to further the cause.

No doubt about it, education is the next big civil rights issue.    And Mike Johnston appealed to everyone in the room who had gathered to learn how to push the movement forward.  It is going to be hard work.  But in those difficult times, Mike Johnston asked us to take our keys out of our pockets, feel the weight of them in our hands, and remember Mary Jo Smiley.  We hold the keys.

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