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Civil rights activist visit highlights MLK weekend

Jordan Penn, left, exchanges contact information with veteran civil rights activist Rev. Peter Johnson, a former associate of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Commerce on Jan. 18. Penn is a senior at Texas A&M University-Commerce.
Mark Haslett

Attendees at this year’s Hunt County African-American Leadership Conference Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Awards Ceremony heard a keynote speaker who wasn’t just a witness to history – he was an active participant in history.

Rev. Peter Johnson, of Dallas, delivered an address to those present at the event at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Commerce on Jan. 18. Johnson worked as a student organizer in the civil rights movement during the 1960s and continues his career as an activist today. In the 60s, Johnson worked directly with King as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“The main message that I want everybody to understand is that the success of the civil rights movement is evidence that God is with us and with our nation,” Johnson said. “The civil rights movement could have been a bloodbath for our nation. But God had a ram in the bush called Martin King to help us understand about love and compassion and forgiveness, which is the essence of the New Testament.”

Johnson’s speech included accounts of the dangerous and sometimes deadly conflict of the mid and late 1960s. Johnson emphasized that he participated as part of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s student caucus, which sometimes acted independently of King and the adult leadership.

“If I told a dollar for every time Martin Luther King told me to sit down and shut up, I’d be rich,” Johnson said while joking with the audience.

At one point, Johnson told a harrowing anecdote about how, against the advice of King, he and other student organizers went to Selma, Ala., to register voters. Although the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was conducting voter registration efforts in communities with a large African-American population, the leadership had decided to hold off on a few towns, including Selma, on the grounds that some places were so hostile that activism of any kind was too dangerous.

At one point, while attempting to elude local officials and law enforcement, fearful for their physical safety, the activists took shelter in the apartment of a middle-aged woman, Johnson said. While there, she told them that she was a cleaning lady at a local café and had rescued from a dumpster the bloody clothes of the men who had beaten James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston who later died of his injuries. She gave the clothes to the activists in hopes that the evidence would lead to prosecution of Reeb’s killers, Johnson said.

“I believe that it is all divine,” Johnson said. “We would have never known, if God hadn’t sent us down that alley that night … I’m telling you this story so you’ll understand, not how mighty Dr. King was, but how wonderful God is.”

Reeb was among fivecivil rights activistsmurdered in Alabama in 1965.

After Sunday’s event, Pastor Larry Dixon of Mount Moriah Baptist Church expressed his appreciation for Johnson’s presence at this year’s ceremony.

“It was awesome to see as many people come collectively together and celebrate the same thing as a community,” Dixon said.

When asked what younger people could do to continue the work of King in the future, Dixon emphasized the importance of the hard-won right to vote.

“I think some people have taken a step backwards and allowed the seed to be planted in their mind that it doesn’t make a difference whether or not they vote,” Dixon said. “But I know that it does. And so I’m constantly reminding pastors and different leaders of our community, that’s something we ought to stress on a continuous basis – to let our people that we can continue to make the changes that we desire by going out and voting.”

Johnson said as public policy reforms continue, activists and others should remember the importance of subjective, individual progress and the kinds of reconciliation that cannot be brought about by legislation.

“We’ve passed beyond what I called America’s apartheid system,” Johnson said. “Now we have to get hour hearts straight. We’ve passed the laws, but now it’s a question of our heart, and can we find a way to get our hearts connected, especially in the American south.”

Johnson continues his work as an activist today with the Dallas-based Institute for Nonviolence. Johnson said much of the organization’s work focuses on preventing recidivism among former prisoners. Johnson’s organization also addresses chronic poverty and homelessness.

Mark Haslett has served at KETR since 2013. Since then, the station's news operation has enjoyed an increase in listener engagement and audience metrics, as well recognition in the Texas AP Broadcasters awards.