Boissey Johnson grew up close to the heart of the civil-rights movement in Shreveport, La., in the 1960s. The Duluth man once had a gun held to his head for silently protesting during a picket of a grocery store that wouldn't hire black workers f...
Boissey Johnson grew up close to the heart of the civil-rights movement in Shreveport, La., in the 1960s.
The Duluth man once had a gun held to his head for silently protesting during a picket of a grocery store that wouldn't hire black workers for anything but bagging food. He was president of his university's chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil-rights organization rooted in the Deep South and closely tied to Dr. Martin Luther King.
"We had gone through training and knew not to resist," he said. "We didn't get angry. To this day, I still don't know why that might've turned the tides and eased some of the tension."
That quiet activism and a willingness to help others in need is why Johnson, 55, will be given the 2007 Justice for Peace Award at the annual community Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast today at First United Methodist Church.
The award is given to someone who has done extensive work on important issues defined by King, according to Claudie Washington, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"Whatever he believes in, he's willing to stand behind it," Washington said. "While many people talk about it, Boissey's a doer."
Johnson has lived in Duluth for nine years and in Minnesota an additional three after his job brought him to the Northland. He is a member of several community groups and boards, including Churches United in Ministry, the NAACP, African American Men's Group and St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church. As the director of network operations and engineering for Cellular One, he balances 12-hour work days with at least four hours of volunteer work each day.
"My whole concept in life is to try to give back what others have given to you," he said. "I truly believe if much is given, much is required."
After graduating from high school, Johnson was given a scholarship from a men's group in his hometown to help him attend Southern University in Louisiana. He came from a poor family, andcouldn't understand why someone would help him with no need to reciprocate. That, and efforts made by other influential adults, helped him carve out a path of generosity that weaves through every inch of his life.
"Someone was always telling us how to become better men," he said. "I don't care who you are -- someone helped you."
Johnson said he works hard at being Christ-like and looks to King's life for inspiration in fighting for the downtrodden and believing in the potential of all people.
"He was an elegant speaker. I'm not," he said. "But I will voice my opinion on issues that are important."
Sharon Witherspoon, secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP, said Johnson is a humble family man with a deep faith.
"He works quietly behind the scenes," she said. "He doesn't say a lot, but when he does ... it's very good."
Johnson enjoys his work as an advocate for prisoners at the St. Louis County Jail and said ensuring justice weighs heavily on him.
"If I have to go against my best friend or, God forbid, my wife ... I am willing to do that for what is right," he said.
It's important to celebrate King's legacy every year because he was the first black man to be honored by Congress with a day of recognition in the United States, Johnson said.
"There were hundreds before him that should have been (recognized)," he said, adding that he's talked to his children about King and what he represented.
Racism in the Northland exists, Johnson said, but it's hidden. In the past 30 years, the spirit of civil rights has taken twice as long to move forward than it did in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he said.
He stopped at a fast-food restaurant in central Minnesota in 1995, and the girl behind the counter stared at him until someone nudged her to take his order. She apologized and said she had never seen a black person before who wasn't on television.
"I did understand that. In some little towns, you never know what you will run into," he said. "It was something she probably didn't expect that day. I didn't expect it either."
Witherspoon admires Johnson's compassion and generosity and his family's penchant for helping others in need.
"He keeps his phone on at all times," she said.
Johnson just wants to make sure people within the organizations he's part of and anyone who needs help have an outlet for concerns.
"Ninety percent of the time, if people feel like they need to say something, it takes only a couple of minutes to listen," he said.