Living for Social Justice

Originally published in September 2008. We are posting this interview with the late Arthur Johnson in memoriam of this beloved figure who positively impacted Detroit for more than a half century.

any young Detroiters are unaware of the sit-ins that took place in downtown Detroit restaurants. In decades past, they refused to serve African Americans. Today, Black Detroiters can eat wherever they want, thanks to activists like Arthur Johnson.

In his forthcoming memoir, "Race and Remembrance" (Wayne State University Press, $24.95), Johnson shares the details of those sit-ins, and of the social justice movement that transformed Detroit forever. He also recalls his remarkable personal journey as a warrior against racism.

Born in 1925 in Americus, Ga., Johnson moved to Detroit in 1950 to help fight northern segregation. He struggled for change as a leader of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, and in many other organizations. Johnson may be remembered for advising Mayor Coleman Young or creating the NAACP Freedom Fund. Less well known is that in the midst of working for a better tomorrow, he experienced extraordinary grief, including the death of three sons.

Johnson, now 82, recently sat down with B.L.A.C. to discuss his new memoir and the lessons Detroiters can learn from the rich legacy of his life.


INVINCIBLE: What was the process like of writing your book and remembering all those stories?

JOHNSON: I first had to accept within myself the need for me writing a book. I didn't want to do it for ego-satisfying purposes. If I did at all, I wanted it to be a contribution to what was right and wrong about race in America. The more I got into it, the more I felt the push and pull of the interest of young people.

Two people had influence on me writing the book. A beggar on the street stopped me and asked if I may give him some money, and I did. As I walked away this man said, "Is that you, Dr. Johnson?" and I said, "Yes." He said, "You're a good man. Are you going to write a book?"

I went to Harper Hospital in Detroit. I was there for a diagnostic appointment, and we were preparing for the examination. A young woman who was a technician working on my case said, "You don't know me, but I know you, and I think you have done well, and I appreciate what you have tried to do."

The more I thought about it, the more I got out of my system what was holding me back.

INVINCIBLE: I noticed that your first job was delivering the Pittsburgh Courier, an independent, Black-owned paper, and you were politicized by the Chicago Defender and others papers. What do you feel is the role of independent, community-created media in fighting for change?

JOHNSON: The media carries a burden here unlike any other institution in the community. If the media does not and is not willing to step up and put its finger on discrimination, there's no hope for changing. Racism runs in the bloodstream of White America. That's a very sad commentary, but it is true.

I believe we were able to make a difference with police brutality cases because we engaged, almost full-time, a photographer who would take photographs of incidents and report them in local independent media such as the Chronicle, which played a major role then.

INVINCIBLE: One of the things in your book that really stood out to me was when you spoke about Paradise Valley and the fight against urban removal. One lesson you took from that era was that there was so much focus on fighting the building of the freeway through Paradise Valley that it distracted you from properly supporting the thriving businesses in that area.  What are the ways we can apply that important lesson?

JOHNSON: We made, in my opinion, a fatal mistake in the Black community by failing to see that various Black institutions must be created, must be built, and must be sustained. To see that destruction happening was like a bad dream. We must fight for every inch we can gain to participate in the institutions that are created by the community and not be pushed off that course. We must find a way to create and sustain a community that can largely self-sustain, and support what is already in place. That is part of the reason why I helped found the Shop Detroit campaign to support local businesses.

INVINCIBLE: You helped found the Detroit Festival of the Arts. What is the role of art in activism and making change in the city?

JOHNSON:  It's life. Art is life. We must fight to have the art that has been created, sustained and given light through recognition. There are numerous people in this city who say, "We love Detroit," but who are not doing what is required.

INVINCIBLE: What do you think about hip hop and activism?

JOHNSON: I think hip hop is making a statement that we all have the right to say what we believe strongly, and [to have] an outlet to tell the untold stories of our communities.

INVINCIBLE: Are there any women activists that have inspired your work?

JOHNSON: I like Fannie Lou Hammer. I like Lena Horne. I think she had experienced a great deal of pain by the '60s, but she kept her zeal and asked herself the question many Black entertainers have asked themselves-what her role can be to work for change.

My grandmother didn't aim to be an activist per se, but she did it anyway. I will always remember her and feel grateful for helping me to realize the strength and the resistance within myself against anyone who was trying to steal my mind.

INVINCIBLE: Martin Luther King Jr. was your classmate at Morehouse College, your colleague in your organizing work. What are your thoughts on Dr. King, particularly his later years, which focused on creating the "beloved community" and "rebuilding our dying cities?"

JOHNSON: Martin was an idealist in the truest sense of the term. He really, truly believed that you have to love your enemy in order to overcome. A lot of people who feel they know King don't really know him unless they understand that. He really believed that love could overcome hate. We who have the will and the good sense to do it must strive to achieve the goal that he set out. That's about love, that's about beauty, that's about the goodness of your heart. Each of us has a role to play in this.

Ilana Weaver (aka Invincible) is a hip hop artist and activist with Detroit Summer's Live Arts Media Project.

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