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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Lyman Johnson, July 12, 1990. Interview A-0351. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Seeking civil rights and racial equality but rejecting nonviolence

Johnson returned from World War II with renewed interest in ending racial inequality; that desire was placed in him by his father's pressure to overcome feelings of racial inadequacy. Therefore, Johnson could not espouse nonviolence because he did not want to either wait a long time for progress or get beaten trying to bring progress.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Lyman Johnson, July 12, 1990. Interview A-0351. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JOHN EGERTON:
Back down there, sitting in the back of bus, riding down through Nashville coming to Columbia, Tennessee, in the winter of 1946 to see about this trouble. I mean, I said a minute ago, this was a golden opportunity, but it must not have looked like one to you at that point?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Well, it did, but if you're going to be effective and reasonably successful, you mustn't do like Martin Luther King, going round bragging about "I'm ready to go." You got to bristle up sometime, and say, "Look, I fought not to go Heaven, but to enjoy Heaven here, to bring Heaven right here." That's my philosophy, and most of these people were not imbued with all the high falutin' philosophical ideas of Martin Luther King, nonviolence. They said, "Why did we go in the trenches? Why'd we go through all this? Why'd I leave my wife and children, two years?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Yeah. But the bus driver was going down Broadway, and it was crowded, a white bus driver, all the seats were taken, and many people were standing. When the bus leaves way up there in that end of town, it's practically all white, but as you come down toward the Negro section, it begins to fill in, fill in, fill in. So when it gets down here at the middle of town, just about all the late comers, who have to stand, are black folks. Then as you pull down a little farther, whites begin gradually to get off, and Negroes fill in the seats, and then we go on down. All back down in that section is the Negro section. Well, along about midway point here, I'd already gotten on up there somewhere and had gotten a seat, and this white bus driver, "Why don't you nigger women get the devil away from me. I'm tired of you hanging around here." I was in my Navy uniform then, more than just my jacket, see, my pants and everything else. Had my white hat on. I got up and went up to the front of the bus and said, "Don't call these women niggers anymore. That ain't what I'm fighting for. Can you understand that?" That man, I guess he weighed about 200 and I was weighing about 155. He could have picked me up and thrown me out the window. "Don't you call these-that ain't what I'm fighting for man. Where'd you get off calling these people nigger women?" And boy, well, that's just typical.
JOHN EGERTON:
That's how you felt at that time.
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Yeah, hell, that's what I'm fighting for. I'm fighting for freedom.
JOHN EGERTON:
Did you think that this-I mean, were you hopeful at all, or were you pretty much in despair when you got back and saw the kind of shape we were in in this country, particularly in the South, right here in Louisville?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Well, I just figured that somewhere along the line sensible white people would wake up to reality, and stop living in a fantasy world of race superiority, and just recognize that maybe they had been sitting in the most comfortable seats up until now, maybe they'd been receiving the best benefits of our affluent civilization, but now, by God, you've got to share some of this stuff from now on. Did you ever this song, "You Can't Keep Them Down on Farm?"
JOHN EGERTON:
Yeah.
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Well, that was the general idea. These poor people, not only poor blacks, but poor kids from up there in Appalachia, poor white kids, they began to find out that the world was not all up there in Appalachia. My gosh, there's a great big world outside of Appalachia. They were surprised when they got out, and found out, "Gee whiz, look what's all out here. Look what these people have been enjoying all these years and we haven't."
JOHN EGERTON:
When do you think you started having those feelings, Mr. Johnson?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Well, I tell you, my Daddy just about taught them to me when I was two years old, one year old. I was brought up a civil rights man, and all my family. My father taught us, "Now, you can't whip this white man. Can't whip him. Get along with him. But use every trick in the trade to catch up with them." For instance, I took three years of college Greek. My father and my uncle were just that much-if white people study Greek, you study it. If they study chemistry, you study it. Whatever, how does he get to be in an exalted position? What avenues did he follow to get up on top? Now, take a degree of humility along. Take a degree of compassion along with you, but by God, get over the idea that just because you're black, you're not entitled to go into the hotel downtown there and get you a good meal. "Now, son, don't walk in there tomorrow morning and fight the manager of the hotel because he won't serve you. Because if you do, you'll get your head beat." So then, in my family, we were taught how to be cunning enough to get as much as we could with the least danger as possible.
JOHN EGERTON:
So you could live to fight another day?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
That's right. I told Martin Luther King right here in this town, I said, "Martin, you can help us more if you stay alive. Now, you quit being so reckless with your life. You can't help me dead."