America Forgot James Weldon Johnson

Part Martin, part Malcolm, Johnson tried to curb the wave of race riots in 1919.

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James Weldon Johnson (Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

The Martin Luther King Jr. memorial is set to open next month on the National Mall in Washington, after years of delay and controversy. It's about time.

But the approaching dedication has me thinking about another African American who campaigned just as hard as Dr. King for equal rights and doesn't have a statue on the Mall, or anywhere else that I'm aware of. (Efforts long ago for a statue in Harlem, N.Y., failed.)

It's time that James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) got the attention he deserves. Johnson isn't well-known today, even though he co-authored "Lift Every Voice and Sing," contributed greatly to African-American literature, led the NAACP to unprecedented growth and helped forge what would become the modern civil rights movement.

A small group of dedicated literary scholars have worked to keep Johnson's writings in print. But today most people know little of his tireless campaigns against lynching and segregation.

I had heard about Johnson but hadn't researched him extensively until I began working on my book, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America, about America's worst spate of anti-black riots and lynching in 1919. I have Johnson to thank for the book's title. He called the period the Red Summer because it was so bloody, with riots in Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Omaha, Neb.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and elsewhere.

Long before 1919, Johnson had made a name for himself. Active in politics and fluent in Spanish, he was appointed a consul in Latin America by Theodore Roosevelt. He wrote songs with his brother in New York. He authored The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, published in 1912. In 1916 W.E.B. Du Bois recruited Johnson to become NAACP field secretary. He excelled at the job, recruiting tens of thousands of black members for the first time in the young organization's history.

But his most important civil rights work came during the Red Summer. This violent season that Johnson later described in his memoir as "that summer when the stoutest-hearted Negroes felt terror and dismay" was, in many ways, the apex of this dynamo's impressive life.

Johnson spent 1919 traveling coast-to-coast to deliver speeches on civil rights to packed audiences. He helped organize the NAACP's first national anti-lynching conference. He wrote dozens of commentaries on the violence for various publications. He met constantly with journalists and business leaders to advocate for equal rights. He forged a small but important coalition of white politicians sympathetic to black rights.

In reading his speeches from 1919, I was awed by Johnson's power and persistence. At times he sounded like Dr. King -- and at times like Malcolm X. Often his speeches sounded like a mix of both, though Johnson delivered his words before either of those men was alive.

Here is Johnson on self-defense, from a speech in Boston in November 1919: "I know we can't settle this race trouble by taking a shotgun and going out and shooting up people, but I will say it will go a long way toward settling this thing if we shoot back when we are shot at."