He called to me from across the enormous, open bay at the bottom of the stairs where the blacks would gather to cook, laugh, scheme and taunt one another and where he would sit by one of the few working radiators to keep his feet and hands warm. He was 71, obese, illiterate and suffered from diabetes, prostate cancer, recurring heart attacks, arthritis and the insolence of the young blacks whom he said “don’t know no better”.
Johnnie was from a poor farming town in central western Mississippi on the river with a population smaller than the prison camp in which he now lived. He had innumerable brothers and sisters that I imagined all ran barefoot around the cotton plantation on which they were, essentially, sharecroppers. He was 12 when Emmit Till was murdered in nearby Money, Mississippi, and quickly joined the ranks of many of the peaceful protesters and activists of that generation. He knew Medgar Evars and marched with Martin Luther King, which as far as I can tell, every American black and most whites living in the United States, did at some point. He couldn’t understand my disdain for Sharpton and Jackson, although he granted they seemed to be more interested in politics and making money than helping “poor folk”.
He eventually moved to Memphis, married his childhood sweetheart, had a bunch of children and was active in his church, community and Democratic politics. I enjoyed his company immensely because I felt like I was in the … Read the rest