Richard Johnson Jr. holds up his Trailblazer Award plaque he received Sunday during the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance. He said he was proud of the plaque and of Dr. King and his work, noting that many followers of Dr. King who contributed to the movement will never be recognized this side of heaven. - Special photo
COVINGTON -- Newton County's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance was held Sunday afternoon and according to organizers, despite the interest generated by the Falcon's game, there was a good turnout for the event.
Keynote speaker was State Rep. Pam Dickerson, D-Conyers, and the program featured artistic performances by young people as well as musical selections by the Interdenominational Choir.
Two prestigious awards were presented to community leaders including the I Have A Dream Award, which went to Bea Jackson, director of Washington Street Community Center, and the Trailblazer Award, which was given to Richard Johnson Jr.
Johnson, founder and owner of A&J's Bail Bonding Company, is a native Newton Countian who has seen a lot of changes in the fabric of Newton County over the years. He was on the front lines during the Civil Rights struggle and recalls a time when going to jail was a daily reality in his home county, not because he had done anything wrong, but in the hopes of putting a stop to his influence and leadership. It didn't work and Johnson took home a plaque Sunday that acknowledged the part he played in what he calls "the movement."
It started at the all-black R.L. Cousins High School in the mid to late 1960s when he said "blacks were on the back seat of everything, not incorporated into society as first class citizens."
Johnson, who himself was a student at Cousins and who had left there to go into the military and returned to Covington, was a young man in his 20s.
He said conditions were not good at the school with a lack of heating and cooling and no screens over the windows.
"Students couldn't concentrate on their studies for the insects coming in," he recalled. "One of the student leaders there at the time was Forrest Sawyer who organized students there and said they should do something about the conditions. They were fed up with the conditions and walked out of school one morning.
"At this time, I got a call that the students were out of school in the street and there needed to be some leader to organize them and find out their intent and what was going on at the school ... That's where I came into the picture."
From that protest, the seed was planted to tear down the barriers for the black community wherever they existed in the county and one by one, the protestors saw them fall.
"Wherever there was discrimination going on where blacks were being denied privileges that whites had in Newton County, those barriers were attacked at this time," Johnson said. "I'm glad to say that we were successful in doing this ... Those things were changed due to the movement to the betterment of Newton County. Newton County today is a better county than it was then."
The school system became integrated and hiring practices became equal.
Johnson recalled that while there were black policemen, they could only arrest blacks, and that had to change. Also, stores hired blacks to be behind the scenes, working to stock shelves and the like, but they called for blacks to work in the front of the store as cashiers and in other positions.
The Newton County Sheriff's Office was integrated, as were the hospital and local restaurants.
"We were going to the side window at restaurants to get our hamburgers and hot dogs ... We refused to continue to go to the window," he said, using as an example Micky's Grill located in the basement of a building next door to the courthouse. "They refused to serve blacks and refused to let them come in, but we broke that barrier down and we did go in and we were served before the movement was over with."
He said for a period of time there were daily marches and gradually the lines of communication opened up.
"The people of Newton County found out it was for real and it wasn't just a game," he said. "The only way this happened was to get people to the table to talk and communicate and hear about the grievances and needs. It took pressure, it took Black Easter, it took marching up and down the street from the church where our headquarters were to the Square every night even though we had Georgia State troopers get involved and they would come in and bust us."
Johnson said it got to where he would leave home in the morning and tell his wife, 'Hey, I'll see you after a while in jail.' I had committed no crime, but the system was to get the leaders off the street so they couldn't organize to march at night. It didn't stop the movement."
Johnson said those were serious times, but said he was never afraid.
"When you have God watching over you and he is your shield and protector and you believe that, you shouldn't fear what man can do to you," he said. "I was on the side of God and I still am. We knew as a race of people we could not protect ourselves with guns, swords and violence. That's why the movement moved in a nonviolent way. We didn't have the power ... nothing but the power of the Lord to move those mountains."
He said young people today, both black and white, for the most part have no idea of what the conditions were like for those who came before and he says in his business he sees all races and nationalities of people who go to jail after having committed the same types of crimes. "It has no color, it has no gender," he said.
"We've left our basics. Common sense is missing in our society. We don't have it anymore," he said, adding that lack of morals, respect and character runs rampant through all segments of society.
Johnson said truly society's ills could be corrected by heeding the teachings of Jesus.
"Our duty is to love one another," he said. "That's the whole story to integration, segregation, for the whites and the blacks, we must love. We're all God's children and we're all brothers and sisters in Christ."
Johnson, 74, and his wife Polly have been married for 52 years. They are the parents of a grown son and have two grandchildren and one great-grandchild on the way. He's been a member of Good Hope Baptist Church for 70 years and been a deacon for more than 50 years. He's served the church in numerous capacities and currently teaches a Bible class each Wednesday evening.
(Editor's Note: Look for a story on the winner of the I Have A Dream Award Bea Jackson later in the week.)