In the Corner of a Freedom Fighter
Who is the unofficial civil rights conscience of this craggy, cranky state?
That’s Lionel (as in “train”: strong, steam-powered and determined to stay on track) W. (for “Washington,” the first president of this country) Johnson--the same surname as the president who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
That’s Lionel W. Johnson, who moved here from Louisiana 53 years ago as a skinny young Army recruit. Johnson lived in a segregated barrack, African Americans only, at now-defunct Grenier Field. After he got out of the service, Johnson settled in the Granite State. “I hated all that hot weather down South,” he remembered.
That’s Lionel W. Johnson, who worked in a yarn mill, cleaned carcasses in a slaughterhouse, tinkered as an auto mechanic and delivered dry cleaning until his white boss went belly-up. Johnson bought what was left of the business and for more than 25 years has operated a Manchester landmark, Fashion Cleaners.
Thirty years ago, Johnson helped start this state’s chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. Thirty-one years ago, he became a Manchester selectman, the New England counterpart of city councilors. Seven years ago, he was elected to the New Hampshire state legislature. In a state where 68% of the voters are Republican, Johnson is a proud anomaly, a Democrat. At 72, he is the sole African American among the legislature’s 424 members.
He earned his seat with the agenda of enacting a state holiday to honor the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But even as the spotlight of the presidential primary shines briefly on the hard, icy landscape here, Johnson’s goal remains unattained. Dozens of countries around the world observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day in some fashion, and the legislatures of 49 states have recognized the slain civil rights leader with an official holiday. But not New Hampshire.
“We try to say we are the ‘Live Free or Die’ state,” said Johnson, using the phrase emblazoned on New Hampshire license plates. “Here we had a man who died for freedom and we don’t even recognize him.”
The oversight was by no means mutual. Addressing the crowd that filled the Capitol Mall in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, King implored, “Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.”
Back in those hilltops, the state does nod to King. An annual civil rights day coincides with the time when every other state marks some kind of Martin Luther King Jr. day. (The federal holiday was enacted in 1983.) For several years, governors here have signed official proclamations on or around Jan. 17, dubbing the day “Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Day.” Tied up this year with Republican primary activities, Gov. Steve Merrill enlisted Johnson to publicly read the proclamation.
Supporters of the movement to establish a formal state holiday in King’s memory say the distinction is more than semantic. Other states have enacted holidays with hybrid names, such as Martin Luther King / Human Rights Day in Utah or Virginia’s verbally cumbersome Martin Luther King, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson Day.
“I haven’t been convinced by any of the arguments for calling it a ‘civil rights day,’ ” said Jared Sexton, the 21-year-old African American student body president at the University of New Hampshire. “By keeping it a civil rights day, it obscures a lot of the work that Dr. King did, which was not just civil rights, but economic justice, social justice and, some might say, gender justice.”
Former state Sen. Susan McLane, a Republican, fruitlessly sponsored bills for five years seeking to enact a state holiday for King. As has happened with each annual attempt by the legislature to create a day for King, the efforts were voted down--sometimes by very narrow margins. “There’s this weird prejudice here,” McLane said. Just 1% of New Hampshire’s 1.7 million population is African American; only Maine and Vermont have fewer black residents, McLane noted. “So we don’t deal with it. Isn’t that stupid?”
But in other quarters, the failure to designate a special day for King has won New Hampshire acclaim. Detractors here blast King as a communist. They fault him for his opposition to the Vietnam War. They say others are more worthy of this honor and suggest Abraham Lincoln or Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher who was killed in the Challenger space shuttle disaster. In one three-year period, the Manchester Union Leader ran 100 editorials, cartoons and columns blasting the idea of a holiday for “a man who went out of his way to dishonor America.”
Over the weekend, Richard Barrett, head of the Mississippi-based Nationalist Movement, traveled to Concord to hold a rally praising New Hampshire for “resisting” the King holiday. “As goes New Hampshire, so goes the nation,” Barrett declared.
But Johnson prefers not to dwell on such unpleasantries. New Hampshire may be home to skinhead and militia groups that espouse white supremacy, he conceded, “but I don’t think that sort of thing is any worse here than anywhere else.”
The state where Johnson, who is divorced, raised his five daughters boasts other distinctions. New Hampshire is lowest in state aid to education, so much so that if the annual figure given by the state to schools were tripled, it would still rank at the bottom. It is lowest in charitable giving. Besides New Hampshire, only Alaska has neither sales nor income taxes--but Alaska gives much of its revenues back to its residents.
While New Hampshire often wears its idiosyncrasies as a badge of honor, the state’s bottom-feeder status makes some people question why so much importance is attached to its primary. Johnson bemoaned the fact that no presidential candidate has ever passed up the chance to run in a state that fails to honor a leader of King’s stature.
New Hampshire may get “an undue amount of attention” because of the presidential primary, but longtime state political observer and onetime operative Dayton Duncan pointed out that “if we need to pick some place that is demographically, statistically representative of the nation in which to hold the first primary, there probably isn’t one.”
To the extent that the primary does draw interest here, Duncan continued, “it draws attention to its strengths and its weaknesses.” The failure to designate a day for “the greatest civil rights leader this country has known” is one such weakness, Duncan went on, adding: “There are places where fierce independence crosses the line into cantankerous perversity, and this is one of them.”
Still lean and looking a good 20 years younger than his age, Johnson perched on a counter at Fashion Cleaners--where large oval portraits of King are glued to the walls and dangle from the ceiling--and urged an end to the bickering over the King holiday. Even the Manchester Union Leader has softened its bitter campaign of opposition to the holiday, Johnson said.
“We want to go forward, with the memory of Dr. King,” he explained. A gradual influx of immigrants from Asia and elsewhere is changing New Hampshire’s profile, Johnson said. “Now you can’t tell who’s an African American and who’s not, with all these different shades of color.
“All that proves is how little race, or skin color, matters. Because people are people,” Johnson said. “Accept people for who they are, not for their skin color. Because color means nothing.”
In each legislative session, Johnson said, he joins with some other lawmaker to introduce a bill to honor King. “I don’t want to say I’m the one voice, the only voice, because then I become the black voice,” he explained. “That’s the reverse of what civil rights is about. It’s the reverse of everything Dr. King said or did.”
What King did say, Johnson recalled, was that “blacks and whites, Jews and Gentiles should all walk together, hand in hand, up the mountain. He was about uniting people, not dividing them.” So maybe, Johnson said, “we can all take the heritage that we learned at home, what our parents taught us, and blend it with the family down the street. You put those voices into harmony, and soon you have a choir.”