by Saleana Copeland, Robert F. Smith Intern
My time here as an intern at ARC has been full of valuable opportunities and experiences, including shadowing the staff in ARC’s processing and reference departments and talking with researchers. These experiences have bolstered my efforts to transcribe and analyze metadata for tapes in the Tom Dent Mississippi Oral History Collection. This collection is rich in firsthand accounts of the Freedom Summer of 1964 and has given me an expanded view of the figures who helped shaped this momentous time in history.
One of the most exciting figures featured in the Tom Dent oral histories has been June Johnson. Johnson was born in Greenwood, MS, about 12 miles away from where Emmett Till’s body was found. Even as a child, Johnson could remember the impact the case had on her small black community. She says in an interview with Tom Dent, “I can recall the Emmett Till situation very well. It was… it was very quiet, but it was being discussed in the community very frequently by many of the blacks, but they were more afraid of just really coming out front and discussing the issue.” The secretive nature of her community’s black political thought bewildered and frustrated the young Johnson, who, despite growing up in a deeply segregated town, always had a sense of cultural pride.
Johnson asserts that the Till tragedy ushered in the introduction of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) to Greenwood. She chronicles the beginning of her involvement with the Mississippi Freedom Project through a pamphlet given to her by legendary organizer Bob Moses. Johnson found herself empowered by the organization and threw herself into their cause outside of her classes and home chores. At age 15, she began canvassing for black voters in neighboring counties, speaking at rallies on behalf of SNCC, and traveling with civil rights icons like Fannie Lou Hamer to garner support in other parts of the southern United States.
It was on one of these excursions that Johnson, Hamer and others were arrested, beaten and unlawfully held by the police force of Winona County, MS. The arrest, unbeknownst to Johnson and others, garnered national attention, and the cohort was released by the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) and FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) after three days of no contact with the outside world. Johnson went on to help represent the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and organized the Greenwood Voters League. Later, Johnson attended college at Mary Holmes College, then worked as a paralegal on behalf of anti-discriminatory clients. Even as she succumbed to sickness in 2007, Johnson continued her work for equality as a monitor for underprivileged youths in Washington, DC.
Despite Johnson’s awe-inspiring life and accomplishments, her story is virtually unknown in the conversation surrounding the youth presence in the civil rights movement. This oversight is just one example of a pattern that obscures and erases the power of young black women in American activism. Learning of Johnson’s life through the Dent Mississippi Oral History collection has enriched my understanding of this essential moment and provided much-needed nuance to the common narrative.
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