“I was an outspoken young boy—very curious, had a lot of questions. Why can’t I drink at this water fountain? Why do I have to go through the back door of white people’s homes? I had a lot of whys, but no one would give me the answers.” —James Johnson
James Johnson grew up hearing the story of his relative Wes Johnson, who was lynched in his hometown of Abbeville, Alabama, in 1937. His mother would tell the story as a cautionary tale, warning her son of the life-threatening dangers of being a young black man in America. The injustice of the story and the questions it raised filled Mr. Johnson with confusion. “Having to accept all this stuff,” he said, “it caused me to be very bitter, because I didn’t like the way things operated.”
These questions persisted throughout his early years, and as the Civil Rights Movement grew, Mr. Johnson saw an opportunity to create meaningful change. Just before the march from Selma to Montgomery, he helped integrate the local Star Cafe, but soon after, his grandmother warned that this activity could get him killed. Mr. Johnson left his hometown, seeking answers that had long eluded him and hoping things might feel different in the North.
It wasn’t until he graduated from college with a degree in education that Mr. Johnson felt ready to return to Abbeville. There, he became a teacher at the very school he had once been unable to attend due to segregation laws. He started the school’s very first black studies program. “So I ended up back here in Alabama,” Mr. Johnson reflected, “because there was a need to come back to help. It allowed me to be able to give the kids some of the answers that they were searching for that I couldn’t get.”
Original photography by Andre Wagner for the Equal Justice Initiative) 2017.