The future Rev. Peter Johnson was bloody. He had tear gas in his eyes. And he was fed up. He had made a decision: the police chief of his hometown didn’t need to see the next morning. “I was going to send him on wherever he was going,” Johnson says. “I was on my way to kill the chief.”
The then 17-year-old was stopped by two mentors, who wrestled the gun out of his hands. One of the men who took the gun turned to Johnson and said, “Think about this, Peter, you have to buy your bullets from the white man you want to shoot back at. That ain’t gonna work.”
Johnson realized violence wasn’t the way. This was in the early ’60s. Johnson took his lesson from that evening and applied it to his work fighting alongside Martin Luther King Jr. for the next few years, practicing peace while spreading the civil rights movement.
After MLK’s assassination, a group produced a movie about his life. It was to premiere in 800 cities around the world. It was Johnson’s task to ensure that Dallas was one of those cities. “Seven hundred and ninety-nine cities around the world welcomed the movie on Martin King’s life. There was only one city in the world that rejected the movie on Dr. King’s life,” he told a group at Gilley’s Dallas last week. “You live in that city. Only city in the world.”
Decades later, Johnson still remembers how that made him feel. He didn’t want to come to Dallas, and he certainly didn’t plan on living here. “I came to Texas in 1969 and found Mississippi 50 years ago. That’s what Dallas was,” he says. But after failing to get the city to show the premiere of the MLK film, he decided to stay. “I was so angry with Dallas and so literally pissed off with the lack of leadership in the black community that I decided to stay,” he said.
In 1984, a columnist at the Dallas Times Herald listened to an invocation by W.A. Criswell at First Baptist Dallas. “The message was that Dallas had kept the boot on the neck, and hadn’t put up with that stuff, and also that black people here liked it.” A man at Taylor Publishing, who grew up in Birmingham, talked to the columnist after saying no one in his hometown would say something like that out loud. He told the columnist he needed to meet Peter Johnson. “He’s somebody who has this whole story in his heart and in his head,” the man said. “I think he can explain to you why this city is so different and what didn’t happen here.”
The columnist, Jim Schutze, met with Johnson. The result was The Accommodation — which the May issue of D Magazine calls the “most dangerous book in Dallas.”
A few years later, another reporter, Michael Phillips, told his friends he wanted to write about Dallas’ history with race. He read Schutze’s book and did his own research. “I knew there was a willful amnesia about the Dallas past,” he says. “It struck me as a willful act of suppressing history for white Dallas. African-Americans had to live it. So they didn’t forget it. I think white Dallas allowed themselves to.”
On Tuesday evening, as part of Big D Reads, the three men, along with Miguel Solis, Dallas ISD board president and executive director of the Latino Center for Leadership Development, gathered at Gilley’s to talk about their work. The crowd, 200 strong, was black, white, brown, and everything between. It was old and young, hailing from the suburbs and the city’s core. There were those who had fought alongside friends during the civil rights movement and those who had marched on the highway after the Ferguson shootings. Some were there because they had received a black-market PDF copy of The Accommodation from a friend and then there were those who were hearing about White Metropolis for the first time. For 80 minutes, people from all kinds of backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses gathered to talk about race with those who had studied it, fought it, and lived it.
When the D Academy fellows and I left that evening, we were on a high. It was, by all accounts, a successful event. The interest was so great that we had to change venues at the last minute (thanks to Wild Detectives for working with us and to Matthews Southwest and Gilley’s for accommodating us).
We stood in the gravel parking lot and debriefed. One person in our group mentioned that Schutze had asked how we got so many people there. “We’re hungry for this,” she told him.
Yes, there were 200 people there. Three hundred had RSVP’d. Across town, there was another event discussing police brutality. So at least 400 people were discussing race in Dallas that night. And, yes, there is a rising group that wants to change Dallas, wants to right the wrongs, and believes in equity. They’re young. They have energy. And they’re looking for knowledge from those who have studied and fought for so long. Tuesday night proved that people are willing to share that knowledge.
But you could also look at what happened last Tuesday night and note that only about 400 people were discussing race. There are many unwilling to have the conversation. And those who were there were like-minded to begin with, thus taking the conversation nowhere.
I left fearing that it may be too easy to think that we had done something that evening. It’s too easy for the 200 people who were there to walk away feeling like their city is moving forward. It is too easy to believe that with a few conversations, we’ll get where we need to be — that Dallas is on its way.
In too many ways, Dallas is still just peaceful, accommodating Dallas. If we want to change, we have to make it change. The question is: how do we do that?
In a few days, we’ll have the entire video of that evening’s conversation up for everyone to see and hear. I encourage you to watch it. Take a moment to learn about your city, because, as Solis said, “We have to learn our history and take the lessons we learn to chart a new course for our city.”