Over the past few months, Dallas residents have filled the streets to protest police brutality. Civil rights icon John Lewis passed away. All the while, I kept thinking of Rev. Peter Johnson. Johnson is Dallas’ preeminent veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. He began his work when he was 18 as a student organizer with the Congress of Racial Equality, and, later on, for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He helped organize civil rights campaigns throughout the South.
In 1969, he arrived in Dallas ostensibly to show a documentary about Martin Luther King. Jr. that had been made to help raise money for the cause. Johnson’s bosses back in Atlanta told him to tread lightly in Dallas. In those days, Dallas had a fierce reputation, and the city could be dangerous for a young Black civil rights agitator. But Johnson didn’t like what he saw in Dallas, so he stuck around and started causing trouble. Good trouble.
If you’ve read Jim Schutze’s The Accommodation then you will be familiar with Johnson’s role in organizing residents around Fair Park, whose homes were being stolen by the city, and his work launching Operation Breadbasket, which campaigned against structural inequality and urban hunger. Now 75, Johnson has spent his entire life fighting racism, inequality, and all their symptoms—from homelessness and housing to workplace discrimination and voting rights—often at the risk of his body and well-being.
Especially after reading the Dallas Morning News’ recent report of the abject brutality exhibited by some Dallas police officers during the recent protests, I wanted to hear what Johnson thought of it all. I found that—in addition to being disheartened by the cancellation of the college football season—Johnson is equal parts enraged and hopeful about the state of our city and the nation. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
With all the recent protests and the passing of John Lewis, I wanted to reach out and see where your mind was going these days. Well, me and my wife just had a huge picture of John Lewis and C.T. Vivian in my living room with President Obama pinning the presidential medal on them. You know, both men were very close to me. Of course, John and I go back to my high school days. All them boys was already in college when I started working with them.
How did you first meet him? I met them in 1953, organizing and preparing for the March on Washington. We worked together all of those years, especially during the fight for the right to vote–Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, all over the South, Louisiana—registering Negro people to vote. I came to Texas in 1969, and John and Julian Bond had created something called V.E.P., the voter education project. It was funded by Rodney Rockefeller, and every spring, John and Julian would come to Dallas.
We’d have a big breakfast or lunches for them. And they would bring me a check. That check allowed me to hire Bishop College students and kids graduating from high school to work during the summer months registering Negros to vote in the Black communities. That money and that work changed this part of the country. It created a population of Black voters that could elect Negros to office. And it was a big thing for the students, you know, to be able to take pictures and hang out with me and Julian and John Lewis.
What do you remember about John Lewis? He understood how powerful voting was and how much had been invested in terms of the right to vote—blood, sweat, tears, and funerals. The right to vote for me is bloody and brutal. We forget that Black kids, White kids, and Jewish kids died for the right to vote. Most of those kids worked directly with John Lewis, and John was the epitome of a commitment to nonviolence, just a peaceful—you know you never heard him raise his voice. Just a fascinating young man during those years. John Lewis and C.T. Vivian died on the same day, and he was one of Dr. King’s lieutenants.
The timing of his passing was especially poignant given the ongoing nonviolent protests we’ve seen over the last few months. What have you been thinking about watching those unfold? I’ve been talking a lot to the kids and the Black Lives Matter movement, not just here locally, but all over the nation. For me, the young people today are a breath of fresh air. Before Ralph Abernathy died, he and I talked. I was very depressed and he told me not to despair because he was dying, but that there was going to be another generation of young people coming in America. He said they were going to be Black, White, and Latino. They’re not going to see color. They’re not going see race. They’re not going to see sexual orientation. And they’re here. The generation of kids that Ralph told me was coming to America, these kids are here today.
It was disturbing to see how police reacted to the protests in Dallas and to recognize echoes of the way police reacted to Civil Rights protesters back in the 1960s. What was it like for you to see that? A number of them, we are defending [in lawsuits]. I’ve seen the bruises on their bodies when they came to my office. The unbelievable brutality of being shot with those rubber bullets, or some of them held in jail overnight with the charges dropped the next morning.
Was it surprising to you that that was still going on 50, 60 years later? Well, that’s a good question. No, unfortunately, no. I tried to explain to the kids today, listen, the brutality that’s embedded in the psychology of the police department here in Dallas—and throughout the nation—regarding peaceful protests is as ugly as it was 50, 60 years ago. And they’ve got better equipment today. The tear gas is much more powerful than it was, and I had to eat tear gas.
It seems that protest offends law enforcement. I don’t understand why police officers would be so brutal toward women. Some of the people that we are defending are young women, White women, African American women. One young woman, who was finishing her law degree, was arrested on the bridge over there in downtown Dallas for no reason at all.
What is your reaction to the calls to “defund the police” as an idea, as a policy? Unrealistic. What I’ve said to young people who’ve said this is “say what you mean and mean what you say, and when you mean what you say, you have the umph to back it up and make it happen.” That is not realistic. What methodology, what kind of protests would you use to make that happen? That’s not realistic.
What do you see as realistic goals that protesters could be calling for at this point? Inside the
“The brutality that’s embedded in the psychology of the police department here in Dallas—and throughout the nation—regarding peaceful protests is as ugly as it was 50, 60 years ago. And they’ve got better equipment today.”
police department, police officers who work on the streets, they know the police officers that got problems with race. The Black ones know it, the White ones know it, the brown ones know it. It would seem to me that the rank and file of the police department would like to figure out what to do about the problems of racism inside the police department.
If the Dallas Police Chief was sitting in front of you, what would you say to her? That there’s a disease in the Dallas Police Department. Amber Gugyer told during her trial that there was a secret kind of racist clan organization that is inside the Dallas Police Department that’s historical, that’s been there. [Editor’s note: In text messages, Guyger and some of her fellow officers joked about pepper spraying an MLK parade in 2018 and said Black officers didn’t work as hard as White ones. The endemic nature of their racism was part of the prosecution’s argument during sentencing.]
The Dallas Police Department has a police association that is 95 to 96 percent all White, has an African American association that is 95 to 96 percent all Black, has a Latino police association that is 95 to 96 percent brown. That in itself is the evidence of not just segregation, but racism. If they can’t get along with themselves, if peace officers have to have segregated associations, then there is a disease inside the Dallas Police Department.
I would like to tell to tell her that I agree with James Farmer. In James Farmer’s books, he says that racism and bigotry is not something that anybody’s born with. It’s something you got to learn. His argument is that if you become a racist then it is something that you learned, and if you learned it, you can unlearn it. He said, we can create information, educational, systematic programs to help people unlearn that bigotry and get them to face the fact that they’re bigots.
I would like to see the city of Dallas admit that that there is a problem of systematic, internal racism in the hearts and in the psychology of White police officers. Why not develop a methodology to help them unlearn this disease? But don’t ignore that it exists. The other thing I’d like to do is to suggest that they disband all of the police associations and have one fucking police association that represents peace officers. Because it sends the wrong message.
We’re in a moment in the city where the city manager, the mayor, and the police chief are African-American, and yet there has not yet been any disciplinary action taken against any of the police officers involved with brutalizing Dallas protesters. What’s your take? Black elected officials and Black people who end up in administrative positions in municipalities tend to give a blind eye to the reality of racism, like they are so happy to be there, the shit that you see, let’s act like we don’t see it.
What I would say to the city manager is, those doors you walked through, brother, somebody had to open those doors for you. Those doors were traditionally and historically shut and closed to you. They didn’t just open up automatically. So, the ongoing struggle to make America a better place and a more perfect union, you have a role in responsibility and so does the mayor. The doors that the mayor walks through, someone had to kick those doors open for you. And you can’t close your eyes to the reality of what exists, you know, inside City Hall.
When I first came to Dallas, the people of color who were working in City Hall were sweeping and mopping and cleaning toilets. So it took a tremendous amount of work and effort, and fights, and pushing, and protesting, and picketing, and going to jail. None of that happened overnight and none of it happened easy. And it goes back to John Lewis, and Julian Bond, and the money that Rodney Rockefeller brought to Dallas.