Pain of Selma Doesn't Stop When Movie Ends

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
Sam Merten

Selma was on my mind again a few days before Martin Luther King Day, for unexpected reasons. I had to call my old friend, Peter Johnson, to ask him to talk to another journalist. He picked up, but he couldn't stay on the phone long because he was walking out of Baylor Hospital after an operation.

A Louisiana State trooper had bashed out most of his teeth with the barrel of a shotgun. The doctors at Baylor were trying to fix his mouth nerves so he could have teeth again. Peter is my age. Old.

Selma had been off my mind until that call. At the beginning of the month I made up my mind I wasn't going to go see the new movie about the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. That was that. I put it out of my thoughts.

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I decided not to go because I didn't like what I was reading about the filmmaker's manipulation of historical facts concerning the relationship between King and LBJ. I still don't like what I have read. I may go, though. I may not. The call to Peter has got my mind messed up about it.

In the early 1960s Peter Johnson was a teenager in the small Louisiana city of Plaquemine, south of Baton Rouge. His father was a senior deacon in the church, and there were clergy in the family.

He more or less grew up from a boy to a man in the movement. His little posse of tough kids in Plaquemine evolved into sort of a security battalion for MLK Jr. and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Peter eventually became a full-fledged advance man for the SCLC. He came to Dallas after the murder of MLK to promote a movie about MLK's life, and he has been here ever since.

So he was there for all of it, in it all. He was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River when Alabama state troopers beat men, women and children unconscious on March 7, 1965. He was everywhere else, too. He does not volunteer information about the beatings he took in those years or the injuries he suffered.

"I think about all the folks who lost their lives, including white folks who came to march with us," he told me once. "That's what I think about."

But every once in a while over the years something has slipped out, like that day a week or so ago when I caught him coming out of Baylor Hospital. I knew that he had undergone mouth surgery many times over the years, first by Dr. Walter F. Young, the oral surgeon brother of Andrew Young, who went on to become mayor of Atlanta and U.S. ambassador to the UN. But it never quite works. He's pushing 70 and hasn't had a comfortable set of teeth in his mouth since that trooper bashed them out in the 1960s when he was still in his teens.

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I know that he has to go into the hospital every once in a while for recurring kidney problems from beatings. And I knew that doctors a few years ago wanted to break and reset a bunch of his ribs which have never been right because of beatings. But I think he was too old for it.

I called him yesterday, on King Day, and asked him when and where the Louisiana State trooper had knocked his teeth out. He said, "Oh, shit, Schutze, I don't know. There was so much of that stuff going on."

He was in a car with other people when I caught him, driving from one MLK Day ceremony to another in Louisiana. I asked him about the kidney issues.

"Police used to wear something they called jive boots," he said. "They used those to stomp us. I had a kidney injury from a stomping that caused me to be out of school for a whole year. And periodically I still have had problems from that."

He told me about another jive boot stomping: "I didn't know who I was for two or three days. My face was all swollen up and blue. But I went back to the demonstrations as soon as I got able to go, like everybody else. Bandage yourself up and join the protests again."

He said it wasn't easy for a guy who was 18 or 19 years old to maintain the discipline of non-violence. He recalled another very bad day back then:

"The Louisiana State Police rode their horses in our church. They came in the church on their horses and trampled people and clubbed people and burned people with cattle prods. I still have marks on my back from those cattle prods.

"I was semiconscious. Doctor (Walter) Young and Doctor (Bertrand) Tyson found me in the streets and got milk to wash the teargas out of my eyes. If it had not been for Dr. Young and Dr. Tyson that night, I intended to go get my gun and kill the chief of police.

"That was my intention that night. I had been beaten. I was tired of those people beating on me and spitting in my face, and then they rode their horses in our church."

I asked him how they stopped him. "I don't know," he said. "I don't remember. They just wouldn't let me do it."

The description of white men riding horses into a church to trample black churchgoers sent a chill down my spine. In doing research for a book many years ago, I read the hand-written dispatches of agents of the Freedmen's Bureau -- reports sent from Dallas back to Washington to inform bureau headquarters about what was going on here in the years right after the Civil War. Riding horseback into black churches to trample the worshippers was a recurring theme here, a not uncommon tactic of masked white terrorists seeking to instill fear in the newly freed former slaves.

I asked Johnson yesterday if he is going to see the movie. "No, hell, I can't see it," he said. "I still have too much pain from all of that. I can't see stuff like that. Stuff like that makes me cry. All my friends were there. Most of them are dead now. I can't go see that."

I asked him if he thought young people should see the movie. "Oh, yes, of course," he said. "Absolutely. They need to go see that movie."

I am rethinking my own objections.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this item identified Peter Johnson's father as a clergyman. He was a senior deacon.


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