Beginning in the early 1960s, I joined thousands of other Americans, Black and white, in “The Movement,” massive, nationwide, nonviolent, direct–action attacks on racial injustice. At the same time, I assumed leadership of two well-funded community action programs. I learned the meaning of servant leadership; a leader who empowers others.
I believe that it is better to lead from behind, empowering others and thereby ensuring the likelihood of lasting change. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memorable sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” captures the essence of servant leadership. It’s my all-time favorite sermon.
The Movement, widespread national demonstrations, began when four Black students from North Carolina A&T College in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat-in at a Woolworth’s five-and-dime store in an effort to desegregate its lunch counter. It was spurred by the nonviolent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and then the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was all-in from the beginning, driven by my childhood experiences, life at Howard University, and my lifelong exposure to systemic racism. Until now, my civil rights protests had been generally conducted on my own time. Now, as the director of the well-funded Community Progress Centers (CPC), I could commit myself fully to equality and The Movement.
I’d never been fully in charge of an organization until I was appointed executive director of the CPCs in Brownsville and Long Island City. For the first time, I had the authority to hire and fire. My community-based board of directors deferred to me on hiring senior staff, but reserved the right to refer candidates for entry-level jobs. In a few cases, I learned the art of saying, “no.”
Our programs focused on job placement, support of existing neighborhood organizations, educational programs on financial literacy, legal rights, and navigating bureaucracies.
Our CPC satellite offices became community gathering places and supported emerging neighborhood groups. After all, they, not me, would lead the fight to improve their community. My role was to support them in that fight.
As the public face of the CPC, I learned to interact with the media, public figures, and others. Because my public utterances carried great weight, I learned to choose my words carefully. All this was in addition to setting the tone and direction of the CPC.
Decades of official neglect and racism by the federal government, banks, realtors and others had contributed to the community’s high unemployment, poor health, dilapidated housing, overcrowding, and so forth. While our mission was to address those problems, it would take decades and more than a mere infusion of money to have a lasting impact on these conditions.
The successful boycott of our Pratt-area neighborhood supermarket had taught me that a meaningfully involved community is essential for lasting change and a healthy community. Creative conflict, such as the supermarket boycott, could help get things done.
At the CPC, we collectively decided to measure our success, not by statistics for the reduction of crime, homelessness, drug abuse, etc., but by the level of lasting community engagement we fostered.
We often hired recipients of public assistance at the CPCs, most of whom performed exceedingly well. However, we discouraged such staff from staying with the CPC for more than a year because we were preparing them for employment elsewhere.
We anticipated that many folks might feel that working for the CPC would jeopardize their level of public assistance benefits. Those benefits were ordinarily reduced dollar–for–dollar against any earned income. Taking a job with the CPC might put them between a rock and a hard place. To encourage their employment, we arranged with the City Department of Human Resources to count only 50 percent, not 100 percent, of their CPC earnings toward their eligibility for public assistance benefits.
“I CAN’T PLAY BASEBALL, JACKIE!” JUNE, 1966
It didn’t take long for our constituents to realize that creative conflict can be an effective tool in the struggle for equality. When a coalition of our neighborhood organizations determined that New York State wasn’t contributing a dime toward our anti-poverty programs, nonviolent, direct action was called for.
And so, at noon on a blistering hot Friday in June 1966, I joined them in presenting their grievances to then–Governor Nelson Rockefeller at his midtown Manhattan office at the busy intersection of Madison Avenue and East 52nd Street. Our governor wasn’t pleased when about 60 of us showed up outside his office, unannounced. We were shouting, carrying placards, and demanding immediate funding of our programs. It was a typical noisy, boisterous demonstration. Nothing out of the ordinary, we had convinced ourselves.
It was lunchtime, traffic was dense, crowds of spectators gathered. – and so, it seemed, did the entire New York City Police Department. Our hopes for a sympathetic hearing soared when the governor sent word that his special assistant for urban affairs (translation: “Black business”) would meet with us. That special assistant was my hero, the immortal Jackie Robinson, now active in civil rights. Surely, Jackie would support us.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Jackie strode angrily into our midst, as if he was arguing a bad call with an umpire. He told us we were just looking for publicity and should go away. Not surprisingly, things quickly went downhill. I stood almost nose to nose with Jackie. I screamed, “I can’t play ball, Jackie; just give us the money!”
Without another word, Jackie turned his back to us and briskly returned to the Governor’s office. What were we to do?
One person, quickly followed by the rest of us, sat down near a parked car and all 60 of us then overflowed into the street. We brought traffic to a complete standstill. After ignoring police commands to disburse, we were arrested, fingerprinted, and transferred to a local detention center. We were released several hours later.
It was the first time I was incarcerated. Six months later the charges were dismissed, provided we didn’t get arrested in Manhattan within the next year. We didn’t. We didn’t get any money from the State of New York either.
MARCH ON WASHINGTON, AUGUST 1963
I was one of about 250,000 folks from all walks of life who participated in the historic March on Washington in August 1963. Dr. King was, of course, the featured speaker, but I was especially interested in what a young John Lewis would say. He’d been brutalized and had suffered far more than anyone else in The Movement. Lewis was expected to make a militant call for direct action.
I’d arrived early, traveling on a dilapidated school bus, and had a prime spot for the speeches, cooling my feet in the Reflecting Pool facing the Lincoln Memorial. I was right up front. In fact, my presence was memorialized in two five-second clips of the “No Easy Walk” episode of “Eyes on the Prize,” a 14-part documentary that aired on PBS in two parts in 1987 and 1990.
As I sat with my feet in the water, I heard a chorus of voices singing freedom songs: “Oh, freedom. Oh, freedom…. Oh, before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave….” Then, from across Independence Avenue, over a hill, I saw a hundred or so Black folks – we called them the lumpen proletariat — dressed in overalls, symbolic of the Southern field hands, marching confidently and singing.
I was moved to tears. This was it. This was the struggle. These were the foot soldiers of The Movement. They, not the more well-known public figures, symbolized the struggle for me. I was humbled to be in their presence.
I was so tired by the time Dr. King spoke, I literally tuned him out. It wasn’t until the following day that I learned he had delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech. I was there – but I wasn’t there. It’s an experience I’ve used with mentees countless times. You can miss a lot when you’re not paying attention. Stay alert for the unexpected.
AUGUSTINE MOVEMENT, JULY 1964
What came to be known as the St. Augustine Movement took place in July 1964. The local NAACP Youth Council had been peacefully demonstrating against the city’s segregated businesses. Young people especially were being beaten and otherwise terrorized by racist counter demonstrators. Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) became involved and called for people of goodwill nationwide to come to the city in support of the locals.
Like hundreds of others, I responded to the call. I’d never been to Florida before. I was moved by the warmth of my hosts, sobered by my security briefing, and outraged that the police department was an appendage of the Ancient City Hunting & Fishing Club, a front for the Ku Klux Klan. They provided no protection whatsoever to the peaceful demonstrators.
A curfew was imposed and when demonstrators, many of them kids who violated the curfew, were arrested and taken to jail, they were held in inhumane conditions such as a schoolyard open to the blistering heat. Here, too, were the unsung foot soldiers of The Movement. Day after day, night after night, they subjected themselves to state-sanctioned terrorism. They were arrested and told they could be released if they promised not to participate in further demonstrations. They refused release.
These were my heroes. I had a return airline ticket to the comfort of my home and the security of my position. They didn’t. This was their home. Again, I was humbled beyond words, but more committed than ever to the urgency of “Freedom, now!”
THE MARTYR OF HAYNEVILLE, AUGUST, 1965
By early 1965, I was a board member of the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity (ESCRU), a church organization that aimed to remove all vestiges of racism in my church. We — almost without a second thought — approved the proposal of our executive director, The Rev. John B. Morris, to support an Episcopal seminarian, Jonathan M. Daniels, who wanted to join the freedom struggle in Alabama.
I was in a bit of a foul mood inside and, when the proposal was made, I cynically thought to myself that if that’s how this fellow, Daniels, wants to assuage his white guilt, then so be it. Five months later, August 20, 1965 in Hayneville, Alabama, Jonathan Daniels was murdered. He was shot point-blank with a 12-gauge shotgun by a white, off-duty, deputy sheriff, Thomas L. Coleman. Daniels was trying to save a Black girl, Ruby Sales, from the shotgun blast. He was 26 years old.
Like others, I was devastated by the death of Jonathan Daniels. But I was especially troubled that I had blindly judged this martyr – another human being –– sight unseen. I’d done to Jonathan Daniels exactly what I was fighting against. I live with that personal shortcoming to this day.
ASSASSINATION OF MLK, APRIL, 1968
Even by the standards of 2020, one could make the case that the year 1968 was the single most chaotic year in American history. In February, President Lyndon Johnson unexpectedly, announced he would not seek reelection. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. In June, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. was assassinated in Los Angeles. In August, the Democratic National Convention disintegrated into what some called a “police riot.” In November, Richard M. Nixon, exploiting the unfounded fears of whites about Black progress, was elected president.
When Kennedy was assassinated, we were on a family vacation in Mexico City. We walked to the American Embassy to sign the Book of Remembrance; I was interviewed by a Mexican television station. I felt as if we had just gone to a funeral. I never felt so alone.
It was the assassination of Dr. King that most profoundly impacted Black America. Scott and Alison, our children, had been put to bed; I was looking at a since-forgotten movie on our black–and–white television, when — “SPECIAL REPORT — Martin Luther King has been shot.” Shortly afterward came the dreaded announcement, MLK is dead. The nation burst into violence, well-documented by historians and politicians. No need to rehash those details here.
But, also earlier in 1968, the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Johnson years earlier, concluded that our nation was moving toward two societies – white and Black – and that white racism was the cause of urban violence. The commission called for federal action to address the underlying causes.
Shortly after Dr. King’s assassination, I was interviewed live on the CBS Morning News by the late George Syvertsen as we drove through a devastated section of Brownsville, New York. Somewhat media savvy by now, I used the three minutes on national television to relate our community’s devastation to the nation’s failure to heed the advice of the Kerner Commission.
The words of the Kerner Commission are as true today as they were in 1968.
FRANKLYN H. WILLIAMS
I was blessed with some talented staff members during my tenure at the CPC. One, my assistant, Gloria (Allen) Kaba, was offered a promising opportunity: assistant to the former U.S. Ambassador to Ghana, Franklin H. Williams. There were student uprisings Kat Columbia University and elsewhere, and Williams had just been appointed to direct Columbia University’s Urban Center, a $10 million, Ford Foundation-funded, urban-minority program.
Gloria was my first hire at the CPC. She was capable, reliable, loyal, and –– best of all – she had a sense of humor. Seeing her move on was a loss that I felt deeply. It was selfishly difficult to give her the well-deserved. outstanding reference, but it was a great opportunity for this single mom and her family.
We remained in touch periodically, and one day in early 1969, I went to visit Gloria at Columbia’s Urban Center for lunch. She introduced me to her new boss, the charismatic Mr. Williams. We talked at length. It became a life-changing meeting for me.
Gloria and I and never had our lunch meeting that day.
Next. Columbia University
© 2020. Lloyd A. Johnson. All rights reserved.