In 1906, Lyman T. Johnson (A.M. 1931) was born in Columbia, Tennessee. He was the eighth of nine children, and the grandson of four former slaves. His paternal grandfather, a carpenter, bought himself out of slavery in 1850, and then bought his wife out two years later.
Johnson’s father graduated from college and worked as a principal of a black school. He taught Johnson to see education as a tool for racial advancement. “‘If white people study Greek, you study it,’” Johnson recalled his father saying. “‘If they study chemistry, you study it. 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.’” Johnson said he was brought up a civil rights man.
Johnson is not remembered as a civil rights giant like Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks. He focused his savvy and strong sense of justice on the fight against local racial discrimination around him. As King led the nation’s civil rights movement from Montgomery, Johnson was one of the thousands of foot soldiers fighting that same battle on the home front. The story of Johnson’s life, fascinating on its own terms, also narrates the mostly untold story of thousands of Americans who worked on the vanguard for racial equality.
Johnson earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Greek from the historically black Virginia Union University and a Master of Arts degree in history from U-M. For a young black man who’d been educated at black schools in the Jim Crow South, enrolling in a northern graduate school was an act of courage. Johnson was the only black student and was, at first, afraid to speak in class. “I had been taught in the southern tradition that by being black, I was ipso facto intellectually inferior to white people,” Johnson said. “I was afraid I might ask a ‘Negro question’ or give a ‘Negro answer.’” Eventually, one of his professors advised him to speak up, or else risk failing the class. “After I started mixing with the white students in class and talking out, I never had any more trouble.”
Johnson overcame his fear of speaking in class, but it was harder to overcome the prevailing view of southern history espoused by the leading historians of the day.
Speaking of the first quarter of the twentieth century in An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, the Library of Congress notes, “Seldom before or since has racism been so pervasive and so academically respectable in the United States. The assumption of the innate and inherited inferiority of non-Anglo-Saxon racial and ethnic groups permeated and dominated white intellectual and popular thought.”
This is the intellectual world that Johnson entered into, and at its center was a historian named Ulrich Bonnell Phillips. Phillips was widely regarded as the historical authority of the antebellum American South. He had taught at U-M for 17 years, and though he had left for Yale the year before Johnson arrived, Johnson felt “his spirit was still walking around on the campus.” As a historian, Phillips was admired for his pioneering research methods and the way he had assembled archives from private records, papers, and manuscripts. Phillips argued that plantation slavery was uneconomical and would have ended even without the Civil War. He also believed it had benefitted black people. “The general regime [of slavery] was in fact shaped by mutual requirements, concessions, and understandings, producing reciprocal codes of conventional morality,” he wrote. “Masters . . . avoided cruel, vindictive and captious punishments, and endeavored to inspire effort through affection rather than through fear . . . In short, their despotism, as far as it might properly be so called, was benevolent in intent and on the whole beneficial in effect.”
“As a student, I spent a lot of time trying to unhoodwink myself,” Johnson said. “In graduate school, I specialized in southern history and did a pretty good job of digging up the truth. It meant I had to debunk a lot of the southern embellishment and ‘darkies are gay’ and Gone-with-the-Wind crap that had been written as history. All through the 1930s—even at schools like Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia—brilliant young ‘scholars,’ so-called, from the South came up and wrote their Ph.D. dissertations glorifying the slavocracy and the southern way of life.
“One of my Michigan professors said, ‘Mr. Johnson, you are as right as can be, but no university is going to accept your ideas,’” he continued. “I didn’t expect them to then. They were all under the spell of that accepted authority on southern history—the biggest devil of them all—Phillips. Oh, he was the last word on southern history, and if you contradicted him, you simply didn’t get your Ph.D. in southern history. All those brilliant young southern boys who had been thoroughly baptized in southern fantasy went up north and got themselves Ph.D.’s from the best schools. That old devil Phillips is one reason I didn’t get my Ph.D.”
Even without a Ph.D., Johnson was an astute historian. He’d studied Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner, and Sojourner Truth, and he knew slaves had not docilely accepted their station. He’d read the great black thinkers of the early twentieth century, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, and though he learned important ideas from both, Johnson didn’t believe either man could speak to his generation. Like Du Bois, Johnson was flooded with fury about the cruelty of racist persecution, but he was wary of Du Bois’s headlong, impulsive calls for rebellion and for immediate equality. From Washington—and from his father—Johnson took the values of education, economic opportunity, and the importance of self-help. From his father, Johnson had also learned patience and the importance of timing.
Johnson moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1933. He married Juanita Morrell in 1936, and they had two children: Yvonne and Lyman Morrell. Louisville was considered friendly to blacks compared to other southern cities, but discrimination was still broadly institutionalized. In Louisville’s Central High School, Johnson taught economy, history, and mathematics for 33 years.
Johnson took two years from teaching to enlist in the United States Navy during World War II. He was stationed at Naval Station Great Lakes in Chicago and, within that, at Camp Robert Smalls, a segregated base for African Americans. Black soldiers were not given guns to fight alongside white soldiers. Instead, they served as truck drivers, stevedores, and laundry men in non-combat units. Johnson said the Navy admitted they “had no place for us educated Negroes. ‘Well, my God, sailor,’” he recalled the base commander saying, “‘we don’t know what to do with you . . . so find something to do on your own.’” There were 47 college-educated black sailors at Great Lakes, and they decided to start a school on the base.
Great Lakes was the Navy’s only boot camp, and new sailors regularly arrived for training. “Many a time, 5,000 black sailors would be dumped on Great Lakes from down in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, right out of the cotton field,” Johnson recalled. “They hadn’t been to school one day in their lives. We’d take them in little batches for seven weeks. We said, give them to us for seven weeks, and we’ll have them passing what the public school called third-grade tests.” Johnson said the school was the greatest wartime contribution he rendered.
During World War II, Johnson, like many black soldiers, was fighting for a “double V”: a victory over the Nazis who were oppressing the people of Europe and a victory over the racism that was oppressing black people at home. Watching the Nazis rise to power, black newspapers detailed the similarities between America’s discriminatory, race-based legal system and the one the Nazis codified in the Nuremberg Laws. Black soldiers were fighting the Nazis’ racism abroad, and they also were fighting America’s racism at home.
When the war ended, everyone—blacks and whites—rejoiced. They had won the war! They had defeated Mussolini and Hitler and Tojo! They had ended the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews! They had fought a just war against evil, and they had prevailed. As Johnson returned home, he, like many black soldiers, carried the belief that it was possible to defeat injustice wherever it appeared.
In 1946, as he left the Navy, Lyman T. Johnson was a 40-year-old man. He held a master’s degree from the University of Michigan. He had worked as a schoolteacher for more than a decade. He had volunteered to serve his country and had been away from his family for more than two years. Dressed in his pea coat, his white hat, his naval jacket and pants, he boarded a bus, first to visit his parents in Columbia, Tennessee, and then on to home in Louisville. And when the bus crossed the border into Tennessee, he was ordered to move to the back.
It was a crowded bus, and many people were standing. As the bus went through the white areas of town and white passengers got off, black passengers took their seats. The white bus driver, who thought the black women were sitting too close to the front, said, “Why don’t you N—women get the devil away from me. I’m tired of you hanging around here.”
“I got up and went to the front of the bus,” Johnson recalled, “and said, ‘Don’t call these women N— anymore. That ain’t what I fought for. Can you understand that? I fought for freedom!’”
Johnson wasn’t alone in his disillusionment. Visiting his parents at the end of the war, Johnson witnessed a near sedition after a white businessman rudely mistreated a black woman. “[Black soldiers] said, ‘Why did we go in the trenches? Why'd we go through all this? Why'd I leave my wife and children [for] two years?’” Johnson recalled. For the rest of his life, Johnson saw the period following World War II as a tragically missed opportunity for the country.
“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,” Johnson reflected on his thinking at the time. He understood poor whites had been denied their fair share too.
“These poor people—not only poor blacks, but poor kids from up there in Appalachia, poor white kids—they began to find out that there's a great big world outside of Appalachia,” he continued. “These Negroes had gone from the cotton fields of Alabama and Mississippi and the tobacco fields of Tennessee and Kentucky. They had been emancipated. Their eyes had been opened, and you can't close a person's mind once it gets open. You can't pluck out of a person's mind ideas that are growing and getting bigger and bigger as days go by.”
Johnson was determined to help these ideas grow.
In 1896, the Supreme Court decided segregation was constitutional in Plessy v. Ferguson. It found that blacks and whites were equal legally, but not socially—a decision that enshrined the practice of separate but equal in parks, schools, restaurants, and public transportation.
In Kentucky, in 1904, segregation in schools was made further explicit when a member of the Kentucky House of Representatives, Carl Day, introduced “An Act to Prohibit White and Colored Persons from Attending the Same School.” The law became known as the Day Law. It was aimed at Berea College, the only integrated college in Kentucky—and, at the time, the only integrated college in the South. Berea College appealed the law, went to court, and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided against it in 1908, thereby affirming the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s right to ban integrated schools.
Forty years later, in March of 1948, Johnson applied to the University of Kentucky (UK), ostensibly to pursue a doctorate in political science, but actually to force UK to open to black students. It was a step he had carefully planned with other local activists, a group of activists that became locally known as “Johnson and his gang.”
The registrar refused Johnson admission by citing university policy and the Day Law, which prohibited integrated schools in the state of Kentucky. “If I am not admitted, I want to know the reason why,” Johnson said. “I have no apology to make for being a Negro. I stand on my rights as an American citizen.”
Johnson told the UK registrar, “You just worry about, do I have money enough to pay my tuition? Do I have composure enough to walk into a classroom and act like a civilized person? Do I have brain enough to try to find out what in the hell is the professor talking about, and give him hell when he brings up a lot of stuff that isn’t according to fact? That’s what a student does,” he said, “so don’t bother about my color. Don’t bother about my race.”
In March of 1949, a judge ruled against the university, and Johnson and 29 other black students matriculated in the summer semester of 1949. Crosses burned in front of the university’s admissions building, but the students faithfully and resolutely attended classes. That summer, Johnson enrolled in what he described as refresher courses. “Incidentally, I think I got two B’s and an A, or two A’s and a B, something like that,” Johnson said. “I did all right.”
While the case against UK made its way through the court, Johnson and his gang turned their sights on the University of Louisville (U of L). They’d been collecting money to sue U of L as they’d sued UK. By 1950, they’d raised $1,500.
In October of 1949, Johnson and his gang gave U of L’s board of trustees an ultimatum: “Either you can open the university now, or eat salt out of our hands,” Johnson recalled telling them. “We are fresh from victory at Lexington. You can read the handwriting on the wall and open these doors now, or you can be made to do it, with humiliation.”
In April 1950, U of L announced they would voluntarily open their doors to black students. “They were prevaricating all along the way,” said Johnson, “when they said they did this voluntarily.” Because they hadn’t needed to file a lawsuit to open U of L to black students, Johnson and his gang asked the black community for permission to use the $1,500 they’d raised to fight to open Louisville’s city parks, instead. “We just went from one degree of hell to another,” Johnson said.
Johnson learned to thrive on conflict. His status as a black man positioned him against every obstacle that reinforced racial discrimination. Every “whites-only” sign and “coloreds-only” designation was a wall Johnson intended to tear down. As a black teacher in Louisville, he was paid 15 percent less than white teachers. He was barred from many hotels and would have been arrested for entering most city parks. He could not walk through the doors beneath the sign that read “Free Public Library” because, as he explained 50 years later, “We as Negroes were not supposed, I guess, to be free or a part of the public.” He fought to desegregate schools and housing, as well as restaurants, theaters, and swimming pools. Frequently, the fight ended in court.
“We didn’t lose when we went to the University of Kentucky,” Johnson said. “We didn’t lose when we went to court to open up these parks. We didn’t lose when we worked on the public accommodations. Can you imagine not being able to buy a hamburger at a White Castle restaurant until we started raising hell around here? Restaurants, theaters, hotels, motels, and housing accommodation—public housing—and open housing ordinances: We’ve gotten them all on the books.
“And the library that I couldn’t go into,” he added in 1987, “I’m now a member of that library’s board of trustees.”
There was progress, but Johnson was terribly frustrated at its pace. Though Johnson was a member of the Louisville Board of Education, he chided them openly. ”You’re dragging your feet on this business of integration. The hometown that I come from, Columbia, Tennessee—there’s a little town down there, Pulaski, Tennessee. It’s famous all over the world for having started the Ku Klux Klan. Why, they’re so far ahead of you in integration that you ought to go down there and find out how to do it.’”
Johnson never believed white people would have voluntarily integrated. “Hadn’t been for the Civil War, I’d have been out there picking cotton right now,” Johnson said in 1991. “Oh, I guess they’d . . . have looked at me and said, ‘Oh, he's a pretty smart N—, we’ll make him supervisor over a bunch of other damn N—.’ I guess they’d have made me head waiter.”
Johnson also insisted whites acknowledge what Johnson called “undercover” integration. “Look at my complexion,” he said. “All of me didn’t come from Africa, buddy. All of me didn’t come from Africa. I mean, I’ve got just about as much black blood in me as I’ve got white blood in me, and I have contempt for either one of them who disrespects it. See? It’s not my fault what I am.”
Johnson lived to be 91. In the 40 years between the end of slavery and the year Johnson was born, black people’s circumstance hadn’t significantly changed. They lived in terrible poverty and had very little protection under the law. For a black person who pushed too hard for change, the lynch mob was a real threat. In Kentucky, more than 265 blacks were lynched between 1866 and 1934. Johnson described his early childhood as “dark days for black people.”
Johnson’s grandparents had been slaves and, over the course of his life, he would know senators and meet presidents. Though he had been educated under Jim Crow, he would integrate public schools and secure equal pay for black and white teachers. Though he had been denied admission to the University of Kentucky, the university would come to grant him an honorary doctorate of letters degree 30 years later. Though Kentucky’s House of Representatives made and enforced laws to subjugate black people, the same body would later pass a resolution “in loving memory and honor of Lyman T. Johnson.”
“I sometimes wonder just who I am today,” reflected Johnson toward the end of his life. “Am I the boy who played basketball on a crude, dirt court in Columbia, Tennessee? Am I the young man forced to ride a Jim Crow train to see my sister in Alabama? . . . Am I the young teacher who worked in a high school with ‘colored’ in its official name? Am I the traveler who had to eat in the kitchen of an eastern Kentucky restaurant? Am I the man who could not enter the front entrance to the Brown Hotel in Louisville? Am I the graduate student who had to force his way into the University of Kentucky? Am I the husband whose wife never knew when I’d be home from a demonstration—or if I’d call her from jail? Am I the father whose children couldn’t play in Louisville’s Cherokee Park?
“I simply can’t believe I have been all those people,” he said.