There is no question that Al Lipscomb was ethically challenged. When Wilonsky called me Saturday to tell me Lipscomb had died, I remembered a story the Reverend Peter Johnson told me years ago.
Johnson, who had campaigned across the Old South with Martin Luther King Jr., came to Dallas afterward in the early 1970s and found himself in the Valley of the Lost Civil Rights Dinosaurs -- the town The Movement forgot.
The first thing Johnson did was conduct a hunger strike on the steps of City Hall to dramatize the plight of the poor in Dallas. A real hunger strike. He took only water, and after a week he began to waste. So one day Lipscomb shows up.
You have to know that in Dallas in the late 1960s and early '70s, a handful of people like Al Lipscomb, J.B. Jackson and Juanita Craft were creating their own do-it-yourself civil rights movement, here on a desert island. They took even more grief and trouble from conservative black racial separatist ministers like S.M. Wright than they got from the white boys downtown.
Peter Johnson was a soldier of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with permanent damage inside his body to show for it, scars he earned on March 7, 1965, at the battle of the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma, Alabama. If he was going to do a hunger strike in Dallas, he was going to do it right.
So up jumps Albert Lipscomb, supposed to be Dallas's civil rights firebrand -- who slips through the crowd and around the reporters, gives Johnson a sly wink and puts a Thermos in his hand, full of water, wink wink. Johnson unscrews the cap one notch and smells beef stew.
He hauls Lipscomb around the corner out of view, shoves the Thermos back in his hand and lectures him sternly, telling him this is just what the white boys expect and are hoping for. Lipscomb, sheepish and apologetic, tells Johnson how much he admires what he's doing and how much he wishes something like this had happened in Dallas long ago.
He just didn't want Peter to go hungry.
So does that mean Johnson didn't respect Al Lipscomb as a civil rights leader? Oh, hell, no, because the story didn't end there. Not too long later, Johnson was doing something else never before done in Dallas -- picketing a supermarket chain owned by a powerful member of the then-all-white Dallas Citizens Council. Johnson claimed the grocery chain under-served and over-charged the black community and never promoted anybody black.
Word came to Johnson from a good source that the picketers were going pay in blood, get shot-up or bombed. And here we need to pause for context.
Dallas wasn't a lost valley of civil rights by accident. It earned its status the hard way, with bombs, beatings and lynchings. In the early 1970s, there were still people alive who remembered a time 60 years earlier when Dallas had been literally governed by the Ku Klux Klan.
More recently in the 1950s, a blue-ribbon Dallas County grand jury found evidence of a massive conspiracy to bomb the homes of black people who had moved into white neighborhoods. The proceedings of the grand jury were secret, but information made public when indictments finally came down indicated that white Christian church groups had hired criminal thugs to carry out a campaign of bomb attacks on black families.
In the 1970s Dallas was still a scary place. Johnson knew the gun or bomb threat was probably a cheap shot from somebody who thought it was easy to scare black people. But he had a duty to tell his picketers and wasn't sure what their reaction would be. He was an out-of-town guy. The picketers might not be willing to follow him back to that line. The threat alone might cave the protest.
The picketers did not cave, and Johnson told me one major reason they did not cave was the role of Albert Lipscomb. Lipscomb's reaction to the threat was to go straight back out to the picket line, stand bigger, be louder and act more bodacious than ever, insolently daring the bastards to bring it on. The others saw his insolence and in it they found their own courage.
There was no attack. Nobody got hurt.
I'm not telling you all this to excuse any of his manifold failings. He had failings. And they were ... what can we say ... manifold.
But if there's somebody up on a cloud right now with a big ledger and a calculator doing the math on Lipscomb's eligibility, we know what it's going to say at the bottom of that page.
He was brave for the good.
That's what counts.
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