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Posted: January 22, 2013 10:50 p.m.

Civil Rights leader named trailblazer

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Richard Johnson

A man who helped change the face of Newton County in the late 1960s and 1970s was honored for the sacrifices he made as a civil rights icon who led the way in integrating Covington's schools and businesses.

Richard Johnson, 74, received the Martin Luther King Jr. Trailblazer Award from the Newton County Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance Committee at the annual MLK Ecumenical Program held on Sunday. He was awarded for being one of the many leaders during the civil rights movement in Newton County.

During the MLK ceremony, Johnson thanked the community for the honor, but he was more focused on how future generations would move forward. He stressed the importance of people loving one another and creating change for a better tomorrow.

On Tuesday, Johnson said it felt great to receive the award and, as he accepted it, he remembered where the community came from and how we got to where we are today.

"I was overjoyed to receive the Trailblazer Award," Johnsonssaid. "I kind of had a few tears that showed up-which were tears of joy."

The joy that the Newton County native expressed centers around the progress he has seen in the county over several decades. He was around when prominent black families in the early part of the 20th century struggled for racial equality.

From the time of emancipation until the 30s and 40s, the county's black residents built up strong holdings of land, founded schools and established churches that still stand today.

In the 50s, blacks began to own cars, which afforded them the ability to work jobs away from their own land such as the mills in Covington and Porterdale. Many World War II veterans took advantage of trade school set up for carpentry and masonry. Some opened shops and restaurants, which still remain in business.

As a young man, Johnson worked in the Porterdale Cotton Mill. He joined the military in 1955. He spent his first night in jail the weekend before his deployment, after Deputy Sheriff Junior Odum received a tip from a town snitch that Johnson had a gun with him in his car.

Johnson did have a broken pistol his sister owned in his car; however, he was carrying it to the repair shop. When Odum tapped on his car window he simply said, "C'mon boy, you're going to jail." As the police at the time had a reputation of manhandling black prisoners, Johnson told Odum he best not put a finger on him or he would regret it. The threat cost him $500.

Johnson was discharged from the military in 1958. When he returned to Covington, changes began to take place in other parts of the south, but there still remained the need for change in the county.

He and some of his friends wanted to play pool at an all-white pool room in Covington as whites could play at the black pool hall. Other than some name-calling and a bit of shoving, Johnson and his friends successfully integrated the establishment by simply patronizing it.

With the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Johnson continued to bring about change in the community. Around the same time the act was introduced, he went to work for Georgia Highway Express, a trucking freight company based in Atlanta.

All blacks worked loading and unloading trucks-none had office, administrative or even driving positions. At an employee meeting, Johnson asked management when black employees would be allowed the opportunity to apply for office or driving positions. Management replied that they were "working on it."

A few weeks later Johnson had car trouble and would not be able to make it in for the midnight shift. He telephoned the dock, but when no one answered he went to bed. When he returned to work for his next shift, his time card was missing. He had been fired with no warning and no record of previous infractions.

Upset by this mistreatment, Johnson told the Georgia Council on Human Relations about the segregated facilities and discriminatory hiring practices as well as his unfair dismissal. GCHR employees drafted a letter to the Civil Rights Commission detailing Johnson's concerns. Two months later he gave a deposition, but nothing ever came of it.

He contacted the law offices of Howard Moore Jr., who filed Johnson v. Georgia Highway Express as one of the first employer discrimination lawsuits argued on the tenets of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 1969, the court ruled in Johnson's favor and forced the company to integrate their facilities and advertise any open clerical, management or driving positions with current employees before seeking outside candidates.

A year later Johnson received a phone call that the students at R.L. Cousin's High School had walked out of class in protest of the deteriorating facilities of their school compared to the white high school and that they had no one to lead them. Johnson, a few other adults and the students marched to the Newton County Board of Education, where they did not receive a warm welcome.

Organizing at Murray AME Church, local black leaders and students decided to protest nightly on the square until their requests for improved facilities were met.

State troopers drove onto the square in buses in order to round up the protestors and cart them to the old jail on Stalling Street. One night a jail break was organized and the person in charge of the key unlocked all the cells. Johnson sat right where he was.

Many protestors from out of town stayed at Johnson's home during the demonstrations. One night he returned home and found his house completely burned.
Conditions slowly began to improve in the community as restaurants were integrated, blacks were hired as front-end employees in local stores and the Covington Police Department even hired a few black officers, although at first they had no authority to arrest a white person.

Today, Johnson, owner of A&J Bonding Company, said it's disturbing to know that younger generations don't know about the sacrifices that were made to get blacks where they are today.

"They seem to have come on a silver platter and they think it has always been this way and it has not always been this way," Johnson said.

"There have been many sacrifices that had to be made, blood that had to be shed, jail doors to be opened, barriers to be broken down and lives to be taken to get us to where we are today."

He said the past is the past and he doesn't let it hold him back, but he wants people to know their history, but also move forward to a better future.

"Yesterday is gone, but what are we going to do today? How are we going to move forward?" Johnson said. "We are in a situation where we have no morals, we have no respect and our character is all gone. Our vocabulary is all faded out with filthy words. We have to clean up," he said.

"We can't make people do anything, individuals have to change themselves. They have to have that desire to be a better person and the only way they can be a better person is to have some God about them.

"If we look at ourselves in the mirror instead of looking at the other person, we will pick ourselves up and do better for the individual."

Johnson said the sacrifices he has made for his community were not for a reward, but to help move people forward.

"What I do, I don't do it for rewards or for man. What I do, I do it from my heart and to help the community and mankind," he said.

"I don't look to be repaid for nothing, but I'd love to be respected."

Johnson is a member of Good Hope Baptist Church and has attended for 70 years. He and his wife, Polly, have been married for 52 years. They have a son, two grandsons and one great grandchild on the way.

A profile of I Have a Dream Award winner Bea Jackson will be in the Friday edition of The Covington News.

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