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I was born July 3, 1951 in Northwest Mississippi, Panola County, Batesville, Mississippi where the hill country and the Delta meet. Batesville is one hour south of Memphis where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, 30 minutes west of the University of Mississippi, Ole Miss, where white mobs attempted to prevent James Meredith from enrolling at the University, 45 minutes north of Money Mississippi where Emmett Till was kidnapped, tortured, murdered, and discarded in the Tallahatchie River.
I grew up on a family farm in rural Mississippi in a community that was unique, although at the time I lived there, I did not know it. It was unique because almost everyone in the community was related to me and a part of my extended family. Secondly, they were 3rd generation Black land owners. There was one plantation embedded in the community, the McMillan Plantation, and many Black families lived there. Black land owners were spared many of the indignities suffered by Black people living on the plantation.
On our farm, purchased by my Great Grandfather, Lee Johnson, and paid for by my grandfather, Alfred Johnson, we grew cotton, corn, watermelons, sugar cane, and we had our own garden, fruit trees, cows, pigs, chickens, and dogs. My family also grew peanuts, Irish and sweet potatoes. We slaughtered our hogs and chickens, canned, froze, and smoked food to last year-round, were self-sufficient and contained for the most part. Our community was interdependent. Danger and hostility lay outside the boundaries of our 7 É3 Őcommunity and we rarely ventured outside unless it was absolutely necessary.
I was three years old when the Supreme Court issued the ruling of 1954, Brown v Board of Education. The ruling stated that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
I entered school in 1956, 2 years after Brown v Board of Education. Although school segregation was no longer legal, my schooling, for grades, 1-6, was at Macedonia Rosenwald School an all-Black school, built on land purchased by the Black community, and constructed with labor and materials donated by the Black community and a small donation from the Rosenwald Fund.
Mississippi and other southern states, engaged in a mass resistance to desegregate public schools. The states employed many strategies to avoid desegregating school, which explains why in 1961, Panola County School board decided to build a brand-new school for the Black students to attend. I did not know and am not sure that many adults knew this was a strategy to avoid desegregation.
I was excited I was getting a brand-new school. All of the Black feeder schools operating in churches, Mason halls, and dilapidated buildings from all over Panola County were consolidated and sent to the new school called West Side Elementary, located on Highway 6 west of Batesville. John E. Phay documented, in black and white photographs, many of the shanty buildings in Panola County where Black children attended school before the court issued the ruling on separate and unequal facilities and before a new school was built for Blacks.
From 1961-63, I attended the all-Black, brand new, West Side Elementary from grades 7-8 and in 1964 I attended the 9th grade at all-Black Patton Lane High School. In 1964 Panola County was still pursuing a strategy to continue with segregated schools.
In the summer of 1966 forms arrived at our house that offered us a choice to attend the predominately white high schools or continue at the all-Black high school, Patton Lane. My sibling, Michael, Reginald, and I filled out the forms stating that we wished to transfer to the predominately white high school. Reginald was in middle school and Michael and I were Sophomores in high school.
In July, we were in the cotton field, chopping cotton, on a sweltering hot day and we saw a figure in the distance marching towards us with urgency. We could only make out who it was after he got closer. It was Mr. Hyde, the principal of the all-Black high school, coming to confirm that we actually wanted to transfer from the all-Black Patton Lane High School. He held the paper in his hand which we completed requesting the transfer. He seemed perplexed and disturbed but we assured him that was what we wanted to do. Looking back, I can only imagine what was going through his mind, fear for us, fear of what might happen to him and other Black teachers if Black children left the Black schools.
If my memory serves me at this stage of life, (70), I recall a two-prong strategy implemented by the Panola County school board of education. The first strategy was to institute a plan to integrate the elementary grades first. My sister, Cynthia, was fourth grade and she was the first in my family to attend the all-white elementary school in the fall of 1965. She rode the bus alone her first year with no protection from the bullying. I later learned from her that the experience produced lasting trauma for her.
The second strategy was to institute "freedom of choice" plan. Freedom of choice plans were initiated as an effort to promote racial desegregation by allowing parents to voluntarily send their children to a school of their choice with the use of a voucher. Whites chose to stay at all-white schools, and most Blacks chose to stay at all Black schools.
The burden for making desegregation a reality fell on the few Black families that chose to send their children to the all-white schools. The way I remember the freedom of choice plan working was that I could attend the all-white school if I wanted to take a course offered at the white school not offered at the Black school. I scanned the list of courses and identified Latin on the list of courses offered at the white school and on the basis of that, decided I would transfer from all Black Patton Lane High to all white South Panola High. My parents left it up to us to decide. I don't remember having a discussion with them about it, but I felt on some level they believed we would receive a better education at the all-white school and they did not object to the choice we made. They did not prepare us for what we were going to face. I am not sure they knew how. If they had told us what we would face, we probably would have chosen to stay at the all-Black School.
What we did not know was that Panola County was under a court order from the US Department of Justice to desegregate its public school or lose funding. After all, it is now 12 years after the Supreme Court ruling and schools remained segregated with no plans to execute the court ruling.
In September 1966, my sophomore year of high school, I transferred with my brother Michael, to the all-white Batesville High School with several other Black students. After the first year, several Black students returned to the all-Black school, due to the hostility, harassment, and threat of violence at the all-white school. Now there were only 7 Blacks remaining at the white school, Madalyn and Sharon Johnson (sisters, class of 67), Michael and Cheryl Johnson (siblings) Marshall Ellis, Allen Marshall Tucker, Rosie Faye Austin and Mary Buckley (all class of 69)
Shortly after school started in September, two white males from the US Department of Justice visited our house and asked how we were being treated and if we had any incidents of mistreatment. It was pretty early in the school year, so I don't recall we had a lot to report.
I was ignored by most classmates or treated as a curiosity, but many experienced routine harassment and bullying from some classmates, that included: being called the "N" word, spitting in our chair and throwing our books on the floor when we stepped away for a moment, putting raccoons in our lockers, shoving and pushing us in the hallway between classes, body slamming us from the rear while changing classes, assaulting us in the cafeteria for mistakenly sitting at a lunch table with white students, accusing of us cheating if we got a good grade, and having a chemistry teacher, Mr. Sissell, ordering the Black students in his class to one side of the class room, turning his back to them while facing and teaching the white students, treating Black students as if they were invisible. In addition, the school guidance counselor, Ms. Miller, refused to offer any assistance to Black students who sought help with college applications, announcing to those who asked for help, she did not believe "Nigras" should go to college.
I only recall one fight we had on the bus. The bus stopped at David Weeks house and on exiting the bus David decided to punch my brother, Michael, in the head with the intent of jumping off the bus after he landed a blow. Michael punched him back and the situation quickly escalated into a fist fight. I decided I was not going to let him beat my brother, so I took off one of my new red shoes and started beating him in the head on the back, anywhere I could land a blow. The white students were yelling, "That's not fair, two against one isn't fair." They didn't see the unfairness of David hitting Michael in the head for no reason and did not object to that. The bus driver, Ms. Applewhite, yelled for us to stop, while the bus sat idling on the highway. The last blow was landed and David scurried off the bus.
Many of my teachers were neutral in attitude, and minimized contact and communication. Only one teacher stands out for her humane behavior. Ms. Sadie Mal Anderson, taught business classes and she went out of her way to acknowledge me and other Black students. She inquired about my well-being and chatted with me. She was warm, friendly, and always smiled when she spoke to me. She seemed genuinely interested in my well being. Writing this now, her behavior sounds unremarkable, but in the hostile world I was living in, it felt like a monumental act on her part that made me feel safe just for the few minutes she interacted with me. I do not know if teachers received any training to prepare them for the major cultural shift that desegregation brought. I imagine they were struggling to figure it all out. Many of them likely struggling with how to restrain their own hostile racial attitudes.
While going from an all-Black world to an all-white world represented cultural shock, perhaps the most traumatic part of this story is that in the fall of 1966, shortly after we began attending the all-white high school, a would-be assassin drove up to my family's home on a Saturday night and shot about 12 rounds of 30-06 rifle bullets into our home. My mother was asleep in a bedroom on the front of the house as was my two brothers. My sister was sleeping in a bedroom on the back. I was studying in a bedroom on the front adjacent to 2 other bedrooms where my mother and two brothers slept.
Sitting a table, near the front window, studying, I noticed a vehicle stopped in the road in front of the house in the gravel road. Within minutes, the bullets slammed through the walls of the front bedroom where my two brothers lay sleeping, and blasted through the walls of an adjacent hallway, leaving gaping fist sized holes in the plaster, traveling across the hallway and entering the bathroom, exiting the back of the house, veering right and exiting the kitchen wall above the refrigerator, and landing on the kitchen floor next to the table. When the would-be assassin fired the first shots, I fell to the floor and begin crawling towards the hallway, screaming over and over, "They are shooting in here," to warn my family members to get down on the floor. I don't know why I said "they" since I didn't know how many people were shooting. Maybe it was because of the number of shots fired in rapid succession.
When I crawled to the hallway, I could see plaster dust and bullets flying all across the hallway so, I could see that was not safe, I felt trapped with nowhere to go. I froze in place, on my belly, hugging the floor, I continued yelling to warn other family members who might jump out of bed and step into the pathway of the bullets. My mother did jump out of bed, she ran into the kitchen and yelled, "What is all that noise?" On my belly in the hallway, I screamed to her, get down, get down, they are shooting in here. She looked stunned with a quizzical look on her face for a moment as if trying to make sense out of what I was saying. A bullet exploded through the kitchen wall where she was standing. She instinctively fell to the floor on her belly. When the shooting stopped, we stayed on the floor, unsure of what to do.
My father was away and my older brother Michael had biked to our neighbor's house. Michael told us that before the shooting started, a man in a truck had pulled up to the neighbor's house where he was sitting on his bike in the yard. The man summoned him and ordered him to, "Come here boy." The man seemed to know him and that he was specifically looking for Michael. Michael instinctively felt his life was in danger. He dropped his bike and ran behind the neighbor's house into the bean field. The man turned the vehicle around and headed down the road in the direction of our house. Shortly after, my brother heard shots.
Michael avoided walking on the main road fearing the driver would return and shoot him. Wading through the bean field away from the main road to get home, he found all the house lights out, eerie silence and wondered if we were injured or dead. Mama and I on were on the floor afraid to move or turn the lights on.
When Daddy returned, we told him what happened. He solicited help from our neighbors to guard our house through the night. I only remember Mr. Bledsoe and daddy staying up all night to guard the household. There may have been others, but I don't remember them. The sheriff and FBI came out and took our account of what happened. Nothing came of the visit. No one was charged, or arrested. The sheriff picked up the shell casings with his bare hands, leaving his fingerprints on the evidence. It is only grace that protected my family. No one was hurt.
Our parents forbade us to speak about what happened to anyone at school. Batesville is a small town and bad news travels fast. As soon as I stepped into Ms. Anderson's classroom, she questioned me, "Did somebody shoot into y'alls house? Is everybody ok?" I was thinking about my parent's instructions, not to talk, but she already knew, so I just answered her yes and told her no-one was hurt.
In May of 1967 Madalyn Carol and Sharon Kay Johnson, were the first Black students to graduate from South Panola High. The story of Black and white students experience with desegregation is told in the documentary film 40 Years Later Now Can We Talk produced by Lee Anne Bell and Markie Hancock.
In May of 1969 as I prepared to graduate from high school, I was looking forward to graduating and the senior prom. The bulletin board across the hall from the principal's office held the sign-up list for the prom. The Black students signed up to attend. The sign-up list disappeared after the Black students signed their names. A notice appeared on the bulletin board stating the prom was a private event to be held at the John W. Kyle State Park Lodge at the Sardis Reservoir. I realized that meant Black students would not be invited. I told my parents and they were outraged. They consulted Mr. Robert J. Miles, a Civil Rights Activist in the community. Mr. Miles told us we had a right to go to our prom and that we should. My parents instructed my brother and I to confront the school principal, Mr. Hamlin, and ask him why we were denied attendance at our senior prom.
Just as they did not prepare us for the culture shock of going from an all-Black world to an all-white one, they gave us no guidance on how to approach Mr. Hamlin. My parents spent their lives teaching us to not question adult authority to be obedient and polite. Now we were told to confront and challenge a white male authority figure. On Monday, I rounded up the Black students who could go with me to Mr. Hamlin's office.
I was 50% scared to death, 25% angry, and 25% unsure of what I was doing. With adrenaline coursing through me, I am sure I came off as pompous and arrogant to Mr. Hamlin, who was an easy going, laid back, pleasant man, when I demanded to know why we were being denied entry to the prom. I said, we have no desire to socialize with them, but we have a right to go to the prom. He calmly and politely explained he had no control over where the prom was held or who could attend. We left his office undeterred and determined to go to the prom.
On prom night, six Black students, me, Michael Johnson, Mary Buckley, Allen Tucker, Marshall Ellis, Gaynelle Ellis, dressed in gowns, heels and suits, drove to the John W. Kyle State Park Lodge at the Sardis Reservoir. I could hear the band playing and the conviviality. We strode across the parking lot to the lodge entrance. I was also scared and determined.
My memory of the details is foggy and I am relying on my classmates recounting of what happened. I knocked on the door of the lodge, the door cracked slightly, and Mr. Sissell, a teacher, poked his head through the slightly cracked door. I announced we are here for the prom. Mr. Sissell hurriedly said, "This is a private party and you can't come in, you are not invited." He quickly shut the door. This was not unexpected. We turned and walked back to our cars. We later met up and drove to a nearby town, Marks, Mississippi, to a juke joint. We ordered soft drinks and played music from the juke box.
The prom at the all-Black school was held later and we attended. I revisited the Lodge as an adult and realized how dark it is at that location. Now, I shudder to think of all the things that could have happened to us there and wonder why my parents would send us alone with out any back up. It was only grace that kept us safe.
I graduated from South Panola High in 1969 along with my brother, Michael, Marshall Ellis, Marshall Allen Tucker, Rosie Faye Austin, and Mary Buckley.
I attended Howard University in Washington, DC majoring in Speech Pathology. I pursued graduate school and earned two graduate degrees, the first in Public Administration, the second in Organizational Management. I retired from the US Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. and later taught at a university for over 12 years before retiring from teaching. I now work on projects that are historical in nature trying to document people's stories of their experience's during the Civil Rights era.
It is my hope these stories will help us see the unbroken line of racism white supremacy in America. White Supremacy rebranded and reconfigured so as to look new, but it is the same old thing. Since the 70's We have been in a slow-motion time machine that is taking us back to the past. In 2022 we are headed back to resegregated schools, contemporary school vouchers nothing more than the old freedom of choice vouchers offered to my generation. Charter Schools presented as innovative spaces when they are nothing more than the equivalent of the segregation academies that sprang up in the era of the Brown v. Board of Education. School-busing essentially outlawed and declared a failed social experiment by the Supreme Court. The Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court and we are once again pleading our case to vote before Congress and the Courts.
As I write this essay in 2022, 19 states have enacted 34 laws attacking voting rights. The Senate on Wednesday, failed to pass voting rights legislation that would secure and protect citizens right to vote. Black legislators find themselves drawn out of their own district and will likely never win again if they run because Republicans gerrymandered maps.
We are now in The Third Reconstruction. It seems the question of Black citizenship in America is never a settled question and each generation the question is revisited with America declaring that any rights extended to Black people is on temporary loan and can be retracted any time by white people.
Laws were changed during the Civil Rights era. Some Black people benefited, but those laws are tenuous and are forever shifting and being chipped away to a skeleton of their former selves. Changing laws do not change hearts and minds. Until America turns its attention to the project of white supremacy ideology and how to eradicate it, Blacks will forever be at the mercy of all the ways white supremacy reinvents itself. America seems determined to keep its knee on Black people's necks and our national anthem then and now is I can't breathe.
Copyright © Cheryl Janice Johnson, 2022
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