Blackbird singing in the dead of night Take these sunken eyes and learn to see All your life You were only waiting for this moment to be free. Lennon/McCartney When Lee Otis Johnson walked quietly into the warden’s office, he was black, all right. And in the stupid slang of prisons, he was a bird of sorts. He even had sunken eyes. And he definitely was waiting waiting to be free and waiting for who-knows-what-else. Yet he looked anything but militantly revolutionary. He was medium height, with a slight build. He shook hands without the hard grip of a man trying to prove something. The warden said, “Sit down over there, Lee Otis, in that chair. I don’t know what this man’s purpose is he says he wants to talk to you. I don’t know why he’s here, but I guess he’ll tell you.” The warden remained in his seat. He listened. LEE OTIS spoke of origins: “I was raised in Houston’s Third Ward, where Fred Hampton just got shot. We lived there from 1944 to 1960. Then my dad got on with Sheffield Steel, doing a dangerous job that had killed a couple of previous workers. He worked his way up, even developed a safety device for the plant. Finally, he had about nine dollars in the bank it couldn’t have been more than fifteen. But that was enough for a downpayment on a house. So we left Third Ward. That change in location opened my eyes, made me see the real harm of living in the ghetto. I cried for almost two years. “Hustling was the only life I had known. I had been gambling, breaking in and burglarizing, shooting high-stakes pool, and engaging in every other sort of con-game. In those days I thought it was smart to drive big cars and wear silk clothes. Prostitution was a big racket, and we were all mistreating our own women without even realizing it. Looking back, that move was my awakening. I knew I had to do something to help all those brothers still trapped in Third Ward.” At first, Johnson thought money was the answer. That sort of thinking only got him another prison term, ‘for the authorities said his new dollars came the quick-and-easy route. While in prison, Johnson passed a high school equivalency test. Instant education replaced instant money as his goal. As soon as he became a free man again, he enrolled at Texas Southern University. Almost immediately, the pattern repeated itself: disappointment followed hope, and trouble followed disappointment. “The dean of the school announced he was going to give the draft board the names 4 The Texas Observer of all male students not in the academic upper fifth. Well, a lot of us thought it was unfair for a man’s grades to determine whether he ended up getting shot at in Vietnam. So we protested and shut the school down. As a result I was suspended. I was restricted from everything but classes and the library. I continued going to class because I was there for knowledge, not for grades. And despite the restrictions, I continued going to the student union and playing tennis on the university courts. I had paid building fees, so I was entitled to that.” Johnson, then a field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating scene to off-campus confrontations. One rally in Houston’s Hermann Park ended when a unit of Marine Reserves went on a berserk search-and-destroy mission. Mayor Louie Welch praised the combatants for a “good job.” Johnson noting the bleeding heads around him said the weekend-soldiers ought to go to Vietnam if they wanted to fight, instead of using their reserve status to get draft deferments. He called Welch “Hitler’s illegitimate baby, a sadist, a robot with no emotion.” Then he participated in another protest a peace vigil at Lyndon Johnson’s ranch. Nothing violent happened there, but back in Houston shortly afterwards, an incident occurred which forced a break in protesting. A young boy wandering around some of the city’s railroad tracks got his leg sliced off. Movement members rushed him to the hospital, where a vain attempt to restore the limb was made. In the ensuing days, the prOtesters donated blood and time to save the boy. Even after the emergency was over, the lull in protesting continued. It took the arrest of Johnson and two others and the setting of the aforementioned $25,000 peace bond to spark new rallies. LAST WEEK Johnson leaned back in the straight metal chair, against the east wall of the warden’s office. He sat calmly, his hands contrasting with the white uniformed lap in which they lay. He spoke of the pressure that forced his release from jail: “Everybody got stirred up and marched to protest the bond. Under the peace bond if we had paid it to go free any infraction of state law or a city ordinance would have resulted in our losing the $25,000. So we couldn’t leave the jail. We were just sitting inside, waiting for something to happen. “Finally, Rep. Curtis Graves talked to an assistant district attorney, and he got the bail reduced to $1,000. It was all ridiculous. In the first place, we had been arrested for driving down the street. We were stopped for no reason, and before we knew what had happened, we were charged with disturbing the peace, with threatening a police officer, with obstructing traffic and with unlawful assembly. I told Graves that I guessed we were technically obstructing traffic as soon as the cop stopped our car, that we were unlawfully assembled as soon as we got out of the car to talk, that we were disturbing the peace as soon as we found out we had been stopped for nothing and that we threatened the police officer after all that. Anyway, we got out and went back to work at TSU.” We came to the textbook section on Negro history. It was exactly one paragraph long. Mr. Williams laughed through it practically in a single breath, reading aloud how the Negroes had been slaves and then were freed, and how they were usually dumb and shiftless. He added, I remember, an anthropological footnote on his own, telling us between laughs how Negroes’ feet were “so big that when they walk, they don’t leave tracks, they leave a hole in the ground.” Malcolm X Texas Southern University to Lee Otis Johnson was a recapitulation of all his former school experiences. Like Malcolm X, he came to believe at an early age that the white man’s education was a lie, and if not a lie then a distortion, and if not a distortion then an omission. These childhood suspicions were confirmed at TSU. Consequently, Lee Otis Johnson set out to develop his own history, social science, and psychology of the Houston black situation. The result was his final radicalization. In prison, in the warden’s office, he recalled those times: “When I was a kid just starting the first grade, it didn’t take me long to learn to despise education. We were taught that the black man is ugly, evil, apathetic, stupid just a Sunday afternoon watermelon-eater. You know, when we were learning to read, we read about Dick and Jane and Sally. The only black boy we ever read about was Little Black Sambo. And there he was on the last page of the book running around a tree with a tiger to make butter for his mother’s pancakes. “But I had one advantage. My grandfather had a lot of old books lying around his place. At first he read them to me: then later I read them myself. There was one old Americana Encyclopedia 1904 or 1906, I believe. I learned from it that Lincoln had been in love with the whites, not with the blacks. I read his letter to Horace’ Greeley, in which he said his object was to save the union, not to
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