Richard Johnson, 71, remembers most of the names of generations of Newton County’s black families. He remembers what they raised on their farms, what kind of buses they drove and who married whom. He also remembers when everything began to change.
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.
"They gathered together and worshipped the Lord," Johnson said of churches such as Bethlehem Baptist, St. Paul’s AME Church and Springhill United Methodist, "which is how we pushed through our depressed times."
He said that while the prominent black families in the early part of the 20th century set the tone of the struggle for racial equality, they mostly kept to themselves, protected their own property and never questioned the white authority of the day."Back in those days you didn’t get too bold because of the men in the sheets," Richard said.
In the 50s blacks began to own cars, which afforded them the ability to work jobs away from the land such as the mills in Covington and Porterdale. Many World War II veterans took advantage of trade schools set up for carpentry and masonry. Some opened shops and restaurants—a few such as Bertha’s Beauty Lounge remain in business.
As a young man Johnson went to work in the Porterdale Cotton Mill and worked 48 hours a week to earn $50.
"I had big money then," he said.
He joined the military in 1955. The first time he spent the night in jail was the weekend before his deployment. Deputy Sheriff Junior Odum had 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 with him since he was carrying it to the repair shop. He said 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. It would not be the last time Johnson slept behind bars.
When Johnson was discharged from the military in 1958, Covington was still sleepy compared to other parts of the Deep South, although some changes had started to take place. Johnson and a few buddies decided they wanted to play pool in the 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.
Johnson said before he had even heard the name Martin Luther King Jr., he felt that non-violent protests were the way to rally for racial equality.
"I didn’t want to bow down to the white power structures," Johnson said, "and I guess I’m blessed to still be here."
As the decade rolled on violent clashes in other parts of the South sparked the introduction and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and gave many like Johnson the leg they needed to stand on in order to affect change in their own communities.
Around the same time Johnson 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. Only white employees could use the company lunchroom. Black employees had to purchase their food from vending machines or bring meals from home and eat on the loading docks. Bathrooms, of course, were segregated.
At an employee meeting, Johnson asked management when black employees would be allowed the opportunity to apply for office or driving positions.
"This was something you weren’t supposed to ask and they said, ‘we’re working on it.’"
A few weeks later Johnson had car trouble and was not going to 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.
Heated by this mistreatment, Johnson decided to tell the Georgia Council on Human Relations about the segregated facilities and discriminatory hiring practices of Georgia Highway Express 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. So then, he found himself in 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 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. He was offered his old job back, but declined and went to work for a local Chevrolet dealership.
A year later Johnson found himself swept up in another battle for equality. He 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. They did not receive a warm welcome.
"If you’re black get back and if you’re white you’re right," Johnson said. "That was how it was."
Organizing at Murray AME Church, local black leaders and students decided to protest nightly on the square speaking to anyone that would listen and hampering the business of downtown merchants until their requests for improved facilities were met. Southern Christian Leadership Conference volunteers joined the local demonstrations. Johnson remembers state troopers driving onto the square in buses in order to round up the protestors and cart them to the old jail on Stalling Street. Junior Odom was now sheriff.
"We’d sing to Sheriff Odum, ‘you sure can’t jail us all; you’re good thing’s bound to fall.’"
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.
"I don’t lay that on nobody," Johnson said. "I could have left a stove on or something. All I know is that it was nothing but ashes when I got back."
As Johnson rebuilt his material possessions, slowly but surely, conditions began to improve in the community. 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. It took a bit longer for Sheriff Odum to hire any black deputies, according to Johnson, but eventually he did.
"Believe it or not Sheriff Odum and I were friends before he died," Johnson said, "on a first-name basis."
"People are people regardless of their views and they are entitled to their own views."
Today Johnson is the owner of A & J Bonding Company on Usher Street. He said that young people today have a hard time understanding what people his age went through to advance black society and that is why studying history is so crucial to not repeating the mistakes of the past.
"Most of them come here on a silver platter," Johnson said. "Most of them didn’t go through the struggle or have the sun heat their bath water or hang their clothes out to dry or draw water from a well. When things are good it’s hard to look back."
He said it is important for everyone to remember what they have in common and cherish those ties.
"We are all God’s children and we all have to live together," Johnson said. "We got nothing really. We’re all on borrowed time and everything is temporary. Why fight over it?"
"We’re all a little lump of dust and when we leave here the dust goes to the earth and the breath of life goes back to God, who gave it."