From backwoods Pocahontas to New York – and back
The March on Washington was the largest civil-rights demonstration the United States had ever seen. Representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. King was just 34 and one of several speakers (including A. Philip Randolph, a legendary black union leader, and John Lewis, then a student leader and now a member of the U.S. Congress). His speech concluded the rally – and its most famous words, in fact, were improvised, a departure from his prepared text.
Despite fears of possible violence, the march was orderly and peaceful. Afterward, event organizers met with president John F. Kennedy at the White House. The sheer size of the demonstration helped to generate momentum for two landmark pieces of legislation – the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as the Voting Rights Act a year later.
Ms. Johnson remembers being in awe of the number of people, the tall buildings, the stately monuments. The most profound thing she heard was Dr. King’s speech, resounding out over a sea of listeners. The other dominant voice, in her memory, was that of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who moved the crowd with her rendition of I’ve Been ’Buked and I’ve Been Scorned and is often credited with prompting Dr. King to describe his dream.
On the return trip, Ms. Johnson travelled in a caravan of buses carrying young activists as well as church leaders. Their first stop in Mississippi was at dusk in Meridian, just west of the Alabama boundary: A mob pelted the buses and their passengers with eggs while chanting, “Niggers go home.”
“We were so charged up that some great transformation had occurred,” she recalls, adding that the mob seemed to say: “No matter what y’all heard, all that dreaming, whatever, you’re still in Mississippi and segregation is the law here.”
Tall and slender, with a drawl that betrays her rural roots, Ms. Johnson grew up in Pocahontas, about 30 kilometres north of Jackson, at a time when the town was sharply demarcated by race. Her father was a sharecropper and her mother worked as a maid for white families, always entering through the back door.
“I think I was born into the world with a mind that wondered about things,” she says with a laugh. As a child, she used to daydream about things like white bread – “light bread, they called it” – which stood for a sign of richness, much like the paved road and picket fences in the white part of town. And she wondered how Jesus, always portrayed as white, and his Father could care about a black girl like her.
She also resented having to miss much of the start of school, which coincided with the cotton harvest, to help her relatives in the fields.
Fear always lurked at the edges of her community, she says, especially after the 1955 death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old killed in Money, Miss., for whistling at a white woman.
In the late 1950s, she moved to Jackson, where segregation also ruled – separate schools, separate libraries, separate water fountains, separate stores. As a teenager, she began to attend meetings for local members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) at her godfather’s house.
Despite her mother’s pleas to stay away from “that mess,” Ms. Johnson’s activism increased. In June, 1963, the leader of the Mississippi NAACP, Medgar Evers, was shot dead in the driveway of his Jackson home by a white supremacist. The next day, Ms. Johnson took to the streets with hundreds of others. She was arrested and put on a truck, but then jumped down to pick up a notebook she had dropped; a nearby police officer drew his club and smashed it into her back, permanently injuring a nerve.
During her last year in college, Ms. Johnson decided to leave Mississippi. She spent the next 32 years in New York, where she taught English for two decades at City College. In the late 1960s, she explored more radical approaches, and for a time joined the Black Panther Party. Then, in 1999, she decided to return home.
One of her first stops was Pocahontas, whose scenic woods and meadows she had missed dearly. At first, the manager of the local general store welcomed her back. But when she expressed a desire to buy land in the area, his attitude, and that of other men in the store, changed dramatically.