By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Charles Johnson didn’t arrive in Mississippi on a Freedom Rider bus in 1961. But he did land that very year in Meridian as the new pastor of a tiny African-American church. Unintentionally within several years he became deeply caught up in state’s civil rights struggle.
After graduating from a Bible college in West Virginia, the 23-year-old Johnson was assigned to Meridian’s Pitkins Memorial Church of the Nazarene, whose congregation then could be counted on the fingers of both hands. Mississippi had been the last place Johnson, a native of Orlando, Fla., wanted to go because of its violent racial history.
Fate, however, would thrust the young black minister into one of the most infamous episodes of the civil rights era – the slaying of three young civil rights workers – Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman – in Neshoba County in June, 1964.
Johnson befriended Schwerner, a white 24-year-old from New York, when he came to Meridian several months earlier as part of the “Freedom Summer,” a massive influx of mostly white students from the Northeast to educate Mississippi blacks on voting rights. Because of his acquaintance with Schwerner, the minister would become a prosecution witness in a 1967 federal court trial of 18 Klansmen charged in the murders. Eight men were convicted and sent to prison for terms up to 10 years.
Chet Bush of Oxford has written “Called to the Fire,” a memoir based on his lengthy conversations with Johnson. Bush’s memoir – an unedited advance copy he sent to me – is scheduled for publication in January by Abingdon Press of Nashville. The 39-year-old Bush, who is white, is himself pastor of a Nazarene church with a multi-racial congregation.
Bush’s account of Rev. Johnson’s life reveals a heretofore unknown act of redemption by Alton Wayne Roberts, the former hefty Meridian Golden Gloves boxer who, according to trial testimony, was a triggerman in the gunshot murders of the young civil rights activists. Prosecutors called it a Klan plot hatched by Edgar Ray Killen, a farmer and part-time preacher from rural Neshoba County. FBI agents and state lawmen searched intensely for three months before unearthing the young men’s bodies from a farm pond dam near Philadelphia.
In 1977, after serving his sentence in Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas, a gaunt, thinner Roberts showed up at Johnson’s home bearing several gifts.
According to Bush’s account, the once-intimidating Roberts with tears in his eyes, asked the minister to forgive him, saying back then he was “young and mixed-up.” In his hands was a crude framed landscape that Roberts said he painted in prison to offer to Johnson. “I’d like you to have it,” said Roberts. In the other hand, Roberts held a string of freshly caught fish and said “I want you to have these.”
The minister, who 10 years earlier in a federal courtroom received only menacing stares from Roberts, now said to the trembling white man, “I forgive you Alton.”
Notably, “Preacher” Killen, the asserted ringleader in the 1964 Neshoba Klan murder plot, had gone free. As history would have it, 40 years later, a biracial state court jury in Philadelphia found Killen guilty of murder, and he is now serving a life sentence.
Charles Johnson, now at age 74 and a doctor of divinity, is still pastor of Pitkins Memorial Church of the Nazarene. But his congregation has grown from a handful to more than 300.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.