Civil Rights Activist June Johnson

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

June E. Johnson, 59, who as a teenager in 1963 was beaten and jailed in Mississippi in one of the most savage incidents in the civil rights movement, died of kidney failure April 13 at Providence Hospital. She had lived in Washington since 1982.

Her life was defined by her involvement in the civil rights movement, friends and relatives said, all the way through her move to Washington, where she was a day-care monitor for the District's Child and Family Services Agency until a few months ago.

Ms. Johnson was just 15 and an original member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when she was arrested in Winona, Miss., on June 11, 1963, on her way back from a voter registration training course with a handful of other activists. Their bus stopped at a whites-only lunch counter, and one of the party tried to use the segregated restroom.

Taken to the local jail and separated from the group, Ms. Johnson was beaten in the booking room, bloodying her face and the floor. When she tried to take a shower to clean up, she was scalded, she said in a subsequent lawsuit against the police. Police said that she refused to move from the booking area and that her injuries were the result of being dragged to a cell, but activists Annell Ponder and Fannie Lou Hamer also were badly beaten.

A tall, statuesque girl, she told the police that she was 15, but they didn't believe her, said her son, Hakim Malik Johnson. Once verified, her age meant that no charges were filed against her.

"We were not allowed medical treatment, phone calls," Ms. Johnson told author Kay Mills in "This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer" (1993). "The food was terrible so we all ended up going on a strike. We would sing. . . ."

The incident attracted little notice at first because the news media were focused on Alabama Gov. George Wallace's attempt to block the enrollment of black students at the state university and President Kennedy's recently proposed civil rights legislation. NAACP leader Roy Wilkins and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been arrested on a picket line in Jackson, Miss.

But Hamer, an organizer of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party who became famous for her eloquent oratory about what happened when she became "sick and tired of being sick and tired," incorporated the incident into her stories.

"June Johnson was beaten within inches of her life," said Laurence Guyot, former chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, who came to the jail to bail her out. "When I showed up, I was arrested and jailed. The eight people who came to get us out of jail -- they were arrested. While we were in jail, Medgar Evers was killed, and I'm convinced that's the only reason we were ever released alive.

"It was a horrifying experience for all of us," Guyot said in an interview April 17. "Yet June Johnson remained active in voter registration. . . . June, throughout her political career, was never bought and was never bossed. June was a free spirit who believed in the empowerment of people."

Ms. Johnson began attending voter registration drives and organizing meetings in her home town of Greenwood, Miss., when she was just 14, although her mother originally forbade her involvement. Her mother and father later joined the SNCC, said Charles McLaurin, who led the voter registration drive in her hometown.

Although Ms. Johnson was not old enough to vote, she served as a witness for those blacks who attempted to register in Greenwood. She was a plaintiff and paralegal investigator in lawsuits aimed at stopping racist practices in the government and schools in Greenwood and Leflore County. She worked with then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and Marian Wright Edelman, now of the Children's Defense Fund, to draw attention to the failure of Mississippi anti-poverty efforts. She graduated from Stillman College and received a master's degree in education from Jackson State University in 1974.

"Most of SNCC people would say June would argue with a stop sign," said a laughing McLaurin. "Many times she was right, and half the time she was just wrong. Since our mission was more important than our difference of opinion, we'd go on and do what we had to do."

In the District, she was involved with the Ward 6 Democrats and unsuccessfully ran for an Advisory Neighborhood Commission seat in 2004.

Ms. Johnson, who never married, moved to Washington in 1982 to get a government job, said her son, of Washington. She also raised a niece, Jocelyn Keisha Teller.

"She worked very hard in trying to make a difference in child care, to make sure our kids have the best facilities and our providers do their best," he said.

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