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Johnsons still marching


Michael Johnson, just behind Barack Obama's left shoulder, made a move for his town on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

Thomasene Johnson's mother wouldn't let her walk that day.

They ended up calling it "Bloody Sunday," a jagged edge of the archives when history collided with destiny and spilled on to the Edmund Pettus Bridge with pocket books, umbrellas, shoes and bodies like 25-year John Lewis emerging from the ghostly tableau etched by the tear gas with a hole in his head and a fractured skull at the hands of a state trooper's baton.

"I think she probably felt the danger," Thomasene Johnson says now. "You know, mamas have a way of knowing their children could be in danger and they warn them. She didn't let us go that day. It turned out to be a good decision on her part. There's no telling what would have happened."

No one ever could have told her this would happen. That 50 years later Thomasene Johnson's son would walk with a black President of the United States as a V.I.P over the Pettus moments after he had implored Barack Obama to help him right here in Selma, Ala.

"It was crazy," says Michael Johnson, the once and future Bengals defensive end. "Here I am telling the president, 'I need your help.' Everyone needs his help. But that's all I knew to say."

Johnson, 28, three years older than John Lewis that day, had been introduced to the crowd as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A week later, thanks to the Free Agency Act of 1993, he was a Bengal again.

Actually, Johnson said a lot more than that to Obama. Well, how many syllables you can get into about 30 seconds? His mother, with those same maternal instincts that kept her from the truncheons of hate 50 years ago, made sure of that when her son wondered why he'd been chosen as one of the 30 V.I.Ps to help honor the seminal event that led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

"Michael has a lot of things he wants to do for the city of Selma, his beloved hometown," Thomasene Johnson says. "It was a great time to network, but it turned out to be a real fun time, too."

Thomasene Johnson, then 16, and everyone else ended up crossing the Pettus two weeks later on March 21, 1965 on the 54-mile walk to the Alabama capitol after two men named Johnson responded to Bloody Sunday.

One, the president of the United States, snapped Congress into action by unleashing the words of The Movement: "Because it is not just Negroes, but really it's all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome." The other, a federal court judge, opened the highways and allowed them to be flanked with the military.

Her mother was OK with that and so Michael Johnson's mother thinks she walked about 10 to 15 miles before the first stop, where she and the other kids took a 75-cent train back to Selma and were met by their parents at Brown Chapel, the church where the march started as they sang "We Shall Overcome," as well as "I'm gonna march when the spirit says march.'"

"It was a long way," she says, "but when you're young and with your buddies you don't get tired."

Four days later she was there when the joyous crowd gathered at the Capitol, where Gov. George Wallace looked at the crowd behind lowered blinds. But that scene was nothing like the one from the anniversary weekend.

"It was phenomenal. I never saw so many people in all my life," Thomasene Johnson says of the Selma reunion. "You couldn't move without brushing against people. It was like sardines. From the end of the street all the way across the bridge. Wall-to-wall people."

And then there was her son, all 6-foot-7 of him, leaning down to the President of the United States.

"Basically what I said is I'm not trying to re-invent the wheel," Johnson recalls of the 30 seconds. "But whatever you have going on, I would like to be able to partner with you and bring it to Selma. It came from the heart. I've been thinking about that for long time."

Yes, Johnson says. Before you talk to a President of the United States, you do have to do some rehearsing. There was the introduction, and Obama nodding recognition with, "Big Mike "and" You're big," and a presidential needle about Johnson's blue shoes. Then there was a hug with the First Lady and pictures.

"After that I got in serious mode," Johnson says. "I said I'm glad everyone is here in our city, but, you know, we have some real issues still going on. I need your help.


Johnson and Georgia congressman John Lewis, to the left of the president, were among the V.I.Ps.

"I basically told him right now we want job readiness, education awareness, and youth development. Those are my main three things."

Obama directed Johnson to his executive assistant and there has been some reaching out with e-mails and some plans. Johnson is no stranger grassroots movements. There is the MJ93 Foundation's Microsoft Certification Program, an outgrowth of his Selma football camp. Two years ago Microsoft put on a workshop for the city's children. The program cost $3,400 per student and prepped them to become computer technicians with IT skills.

As part of the class, they were also given laptops and other materials and Johnson picked up the tab for everything, a program that made him lieutenant governor for a day in George Wallace's capitol. But there is so much more to do. Along with her herbs business, Thomasene Johnson is doing her part, running her son's foundation in every nook and cranny, from networking to gathering pictures to help promote next month's youth football camp where his son brings his NFL friends to Selma. 

"I'm detailing the efforts that we want to do, what we've done so far and how we can partner with government programs he's already got going," Johnson says.

"I'm attacking it from sports, but I want to do things like have kids sign up to take campus tours if they're interested in different things, just not sports," Johnson says. "I want to give the kids in my community opportunities to try new things they wouldn't normally be exposed to. I want to bring the First Lady's Let's Move campaign so it is strong here. It's Central Alabama, one of the top states in obesity. (Obama's) got My Brother's Keeper Community Challenge. That's a program I want in my city."

Fifty years ago that spring, there had been another handshake. It had been in Brown Chapel after a mass meeting and Thomasene Johnson found herself in a line of kids to shake the hand of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"I remember thinking he wasn't a laborer, his hands were so soft," she says.

King, she knows, did the heavy lifting of The Movement with his words.

"We used to march all the time," Thomasene Johnson says. "It was fun because we were all doing it together. But we knew we were marching for something. We were marching to give our parents the right to vote."

Her mother didn't march. She was a woodcarver, but she also worked in the home of a white family and as a single parent feared she would lose her job. She let her five children march and Michael Johnson's mother passed on the stories to her son.

It wasn't exactly friendly to register even after the legislation passed because, "They still didn't want you to do it."

"I can remember my mother and my aunts always going to vote," she says after the bill became law.  "It was at a church about one or two blocks away. I've always voted. No matter when. It doesn't matter how small it is. And if I can't be here, I vote absentee."

There are still problems in one of the citadels of The Movement, but not like they were. Thomasene Johnson graduated from all-black Hudson High School and her mother bought her textbooks in the basement of a drugstore. She once showed up at school with a book she was told to return  because it was the wrong one.

"That's how we found out they were teaching us from a different book than the white kids. We were being educated differently," she says.

She made up her mind that her son would go to the most diverse school she could fine, which is how Michael Johnson became the valedictorian of Dallas County High School, '05, on the outskirts of Selma.

Which is how, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he ended up shaking hands with John Lewis, United States congressman.

"I can't really describe it to you," Michael Johnson's mother says of the feeling 50 years later. "But I was pretty proud of him. I can tell you that."

Mamas know.

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