TAKE 5: Reverend reflects on civil rights struggle
This week, we Take 5 with the Rev. Aaron Johnson, who’s served as an advisor on race relations and civil rights for three North Carolina governors, as well as President Ronald Reagan. The Rev. Johnson, 80, served as pastor of Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Fayetteville for 45 years and will be speaking about his life and career at 1 p.m. today at Turner’s Chapel, located at 1344 Colon Road in Sanford as part of the Carolina Cohort of the Centurions Program, an intensive study program of the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.
Johnson, who served as North Carolina’s first black Secretary of Corrections in the administration of Gov. Jim Martin, and his wife, Mattie, have two children and one grandchild and live in Fayetteville.
You were born the son of a sharecropper. What was life like for you growing up in N.C. at that time, and where did the spark that led you to work so diligently for the cause of civil rights begin?
I was born in 1933 during the Great Depression in a little farming community in Willard. Willard was deeply segregated by the races, and whites and blacks did not mix because of Jim Crow.
Just about the only job a black man could get was sharecropping. White farmers owned the land, and the blacks provided the labor. The farmer owned the equipment, and the blacks bought the seed for planting. Of course, he had to buy the seed with a loan from the white farmer. When the crops were sold, the profits were to be equally divided. But in reality, the farmer took two-thirds of the profits — leaving very little for the blacks. Sharecropping was a step above slavery.
Back then, our schools were separate and unequal. Broken-down school buses were all we were given, and even though our books were worn hand-me-downs, we learned what was in them. We did not want to be left so far behind in our learning that we couldn’t catch up when the time came. If any of our parents protested this inequity, the Ku Klux Klan threatened them. We took the KKK seriously, especially after Klan members lynched one of our neighbors not far from our house.
My journey toward civil rights began with the value system of my parents. They taught their children to have good manners, to be respectful, decent and clean, to study hard, attend school, have hope and strive to be the best you could be. We were also taught that segregation and unequal treatment was wrong, unjust and against Christianity. We were taught to be Christians, to love God and our fellow man.
It was my mother who taught me about the role I should take in life, and that was the path of love. She also meant for me to love those who hated me, including the KKK. Primarily, I grew up believing that I was called to be one of those in my generation who would work to overthrow Jim Crow. I grew up with all the intentions to change it.
You’ve spent more than 50 years working for social justice and civil rights, working with everyone from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to North Carolina governors. As you look back, where have we moved forward in regard to social justice, and where have we not?
I entered college at Shaw University in 1952. In my senior year, I met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He held his earliest civil disobedience, non-violence protest workshops on the Shaw campus. I was deeply inspired and touched by what he taught. He preached that when we practiced and used the power of love, we could bring about change. He emphasized that love was the most powerful tool we had to bring down Jim Crow. He spoke about the “Beloved Community.”
From those workshops, I was trained and given direction as to how I could work with other individuals of all races for social justice. That work is still in play today; it has just been given different names now. Each generation has its own fights and causes. If we stop fighting for injustice for all races, we will lose our way and find ourselves back where we started. But hate and bitterness should never enter the equation.
Your autobiography, “Man from Macedonia,” contains a forward written by the late Chuck Colson. Your lecture today is sponsored in part by Colson’s Center for Christian Worldview, but most people know Colson from his Prison Fellowship ministry. You worked as the state's corrections secretary, and you've also been involved in prison ministry … what takeaways can you share from your work with those in our state's prison population?
In 1985, Gov. Jim Martin began his first term and appointed me as the first African-American to hold the cabinet of Secretary of the Department of Corrections. He was Christian man. He said to me, “I want someone to be my corrections secretary who is compassionate and will bring a degree of fresh air into our prison system, and who will have a heart to rehabilitate inmates. And you are my choice.” We both agreed we would work to make the North Carolina prison system not only constitutional, but humane.
During my term as corrections secretary, I had the privilege to meet the late Charles Colson. I invited him into all 95 of North Carolina’s prisons. That invitation helped form what became Prison Fellowship and Operation Starting Line. We became close friends as this groundbreaking program eventually brought the revival spirit to prisons in more than 25 states and grew to include more than 40 ministries.
My advice to those working in our criminal justice system/prison system today is to make sure that the prison is operating constitutionally. Humane treatment is a must. Although it is hard to achieve, the goal should be inmate rehabilitation. Change a man’s heart, and you will change the man. And they should do everything they can to create an environment where these changes can take place. We should do away with the idea of “lock ’em up, and throw away the keys.”
What advice would you give people who want to be “change agents” — like you have been — in today's world?
First, get proper training. Second, find the occupation you want to work in. Third, learn to work within that organization to bring about change. And fourth, be willing to sacrifice if you have to, and be ready to step out of their comfort zone to make it happen. In order to make a difference, you sometimes have to pay the cost.
What’s going to be the focus of your lecture?
I will emphasize my journey into civil rights and highlight my work in the prisons to bring about humane changes. I will encourage those in attendance that everyone has a story to be told that we can all learn from. Sharing those stories helps make this world a better place. My story is your story, and your story is my story.