Descendants of the movement: Eyewitnesses to civil rights history

By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.

For the Birmingham Times

Herschell Hamilton is the son of Dr. Herschell Lee Hamilton. The elder Hamilton provided free medical care, including surgery, to activists who were sick or injured during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., special to The Times)
Herschell Hamilton is the son of Dr. Herschell Lee Hamilton. The elder Hamilton provided free medical care, including surgery, to activists who were sick or injured during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., special to The Times)

History often focuses on children of the movement—youngsters who were active participants in the fight for civil rights. But there were other young people who played a part in that history, as well—descendants of the movement, those who witnessed their parents or relatives fight to end segregation in the South.

Here are just a few descendants of the movement who are building on the legacies of their forebears in Birmingham and beyond.

Raymond Johnson Jr., son of Tuskegee Airman Raymond Johnson Sr.

Birmingham Attorney Raymond Johnson Jr. had two key influences in his life—his father, Raymond Johnson Sr., and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The elder Johnson was an original Tuskegee Airman who went on to become a civil rights lawyer—and King was one of his clients. That had a profound effect on the younger Johnson.

“I remember listening to Dr. King,” he said. “He was a very polite man, very gracious. I saw that with my father, too. To listen to [King] talk, … he wasn’t loud or boisterous. He was gentle and soft, but when he spoke his words were just so intense. Everybody in the room would just stop and listen.”

Johnson, 65, who now teaches voting rights and civil rights at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law, followed his father into law. Also like his father, he worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), becoming a member after joining the California bar; he has served vice president and president of the Los Angeles, Calif., chapter.

Johnson, who grew up in LA, was moved by the riots there in 1965.

“To see the burnings, the arrests, the way police officers reacted to blacks, that is still engrained,” said Johnson, who earned his juris doctorate at the Howard University School of Law. “I still think back and recall to this day. That’s one of the reasons I knew I had to be a lawyer and fight for justice.”

The civil rights seed was planted in Johnson when he remembered his father being a member of the Howard law review that prepared Thurgood Marshall—who would become the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court—to argue and win the historic Brown v. Board of Education case, which declared that state laws establishing separate schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.

“At first, I didn’t grasp everything,” he said. “I became more aware of it as time went on, and I developed an insight of what the civil rights movement was about. As I got older, I saw some of the work [my father] did.”

Johnson can thank Birmingham business icon Arthur George “A.G.” Gaston for being in the Magic City. He had been doing work for Gaston from his Beverly Hills, Calif., office when the millionaire invited him to come to the Deep South. During their conversation about the move Johnson said to Gaston, “I don’t know about coming. What are they doing in Birmingham?”

“Boy,” Gaston replied, “you’d be surprised.”

Gaston got him to come to Birmingham “almost on a dare,” Johnson said.

“Try it for six months, and if you don’t like it I’ll pay for you and your family to go back,” he recalled Gaston saying.

Johnson came to Birmingham—and never left.

Attorney Raymond Johnson Jr. is the son of Raymond Johnson Sr., an original Tuskegee Airman who went on to become a civil rights lawyer. The Rev. D.r. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the elder Johnson's clients. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., special to The Times)
Attorney Raymond Johnson Jr. is the son of Raymond Johnson Sr., an original Tuskegee Airman who went on to become a civil rights lawyer. The Rev. D.r. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the elder Johnson’s clients. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., special to The Times)

Tamara Harris Johnson, niece of business icon Arthur George “A.G.” Gaston

Circuit Court Judge Tamara Harris Johnson, niece of Birmingham business magnate A.G. Gaston, was heavily influenced by her family’s civil rights history. Harris Johnson’s mother was the youngest sister of Gaston’s wife, Minnie Gaston, and she started living with the Gastons when she was 8.

“They were like my grandparents because they reared my mother,” the judge said. “Minnie Gaston was my biological aunt.”

Harris Johnson was born in Nashville, Tenn., while her father, Samuel Elliott Harris, was in medical school at Meharry Medical College. Her mother, Dixie Gardner Harris, earned a Master of Business Administration degree from New York University. The family moved to St. Louis, Mo., where her father did his residency and internship, before deciding to return Birmingham, where they both grew up. Young Tamara, then in the third grade, didn’t want to go.

“Why are we moving somewhere that they hang black people?” she remembered asking. “Even in St. Louis in elementary schools, they talked about Birmingham, they talked about racism, they talked about black people being lynched.”

Once in Birmingham, the Harris family lived on Dynamite Hill, a district of the Smithfield neighborhood, primarily on Center Street, where a series of bombings were perpetrated to intimidate African-Americans who moved into the community and white residents who were willing to sell homes to black families.

The community was a who’s who of Birmingham civil rights luminaries, including Bishop Jasper Roby, who was head of a Birmingham-based Pentecostal denomination and a leader of the Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God; the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who would go on to become the third national president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); attorney Arthur Shores, the civil rights attorney who was considered Alabama’s “Drum Major for Justice”; and attorney Oscar Adams, who would eventually serve on the Alabama Supreme Court.

Those figures were examples of inspirations for her, Johnson said.

“The strength they showed in overcoming adversity, the lessons I learned from my parents, and what I observed about other people taught me that things don’t happen overnight,” she said. “I come from a very spiritual background, and I do believe that things happen for a reason. They may not happen in your time frame, but they happen in the right time frame.

“We truly had a village that took care of us,” Johnson continued. “Everybody was kind. Everybody was strong. Everybody was supportive. We felt safe. We felt secure.”

Circuit Court Judge Tamara Harris Johnson, the niece of Birmingham business magnate A.G. Gaston, was heavily influenced by her family's civil rights history. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., special to The Times)
Circuit Court Judge Tamara Harris Johnson, the niece of Birmingham business magnate A.G. Gaston, was heavily influenced by her family’s civil rights history. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., special to The Times)

John Woods, son of the Rev. Abraham Lincoln Woods

John Woods, son of the Rev. Abraham Lincoln Woods, who directed the Birmingham chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), may have had the one of the best seats in the civil rights movement. He often sat on a pew next to his mother as his father played a pivotal role in the civil rights marches.

Born in 1963, he was named John Fitzgerald Kennedy Woods, after the president who had been assassinated that year.

“As a little boy, as early as 7, 8 years old, we used to go to the rallies and church events,” he said. “I grew up in the movement.”

Woods remembers his father having a deep passion for helping people, but early on he didn’t understand. He recalls playing basketball at Homewood High School and wishing his dad could watch him play, but the Rev. Woods would be away leading another march or planning another event.

“Why does he go out and do this? It wasn’t like he was getting paid,” the younger Woods recalled. “That was me not seeing the big picture. He was making a sacrifice. My mother would say to my dad, ‘There you go again, saving the city.’”

That “big picture” has come into focus now.

“I know he had a love for the human race, he had a love for equality, and it was a passion deeply instilled in him,” Woods said. “That love made him continue to do what he did.”

Woods, 53, now understands the importance of that passion. He stepped away from a business he founded to be part of the Jefferson County Committee for Economic Opportunity (JCCEO). He was supposed to be there for 18 months—he’s now been there for 16 years.

“I’m still at JCCEO because that bug that drove my father—a deep passion to help people—took over me,” said Woods, who is director of facilities, maintenance, information technology, transportation, and weatherization. “I’m able to help low-income people and those who are less fortunate. Rev. Woods and my mother showed us that people come first. That turned my whole world around. That passion has kept me here.”

John Woods is the son of the Rev. Abraham Lincoln Woods, who directed the Birmingham chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., special to The Times)
John Woods is the son of the Rev. Abraham Lincoln Woods, who directed the Birmingham chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. (Solomon Crenshaw  Jr., special to The Times)

Herschell Hamilton, son of Dr. Herschell Lee Hamilton

Herschell Hamilton was born in 1962, too late to have any firsthand recollections of the movement, but he does remember hearing stories from his father when he was 6 or 7.

Hamilton’s father, Dr. Herschell Lee Hamilton, was known as the “Battle Surgeon” and the “Dog-Bite Doctor.” He provided free medical care, including surgery, to activists who were sick or injured during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. No patient was ever turned away from Hamilton’s office because of an inability to pay. Civil rights icons the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were patients of Hamilton, too.

The younger Hamilton said, “We spent a lot of time around the table, listening to stories, not only from [my father] but also from relatives and friends who were involved in Birmingham and other places, as well,” he said. “He recounted some of the things he did, and other people also told us of the things he did.”

“Most of the stuff I know about what my father did was from people I’d run into the street,” Hamilton said. “Even still, literally, I’ll run into somebody and they’ll say, ‘You’re Dr. Hamilton’s son. I was a foot soldier, and he did this.’”

Hamilton, who still lives in Birmingham, said his father had an altruistic nature: “He just loved his field of work, and it was all about helping people. He didn’t need any accolades or acclaim. He got his satisfaction from doing what he said was an ‘outstanding job’ with his patients and in the operating room.”

“He supported the movement, but he wasn’t trying to be out front in the movement,” Hamilton said. “He knew the movement needed as much support from behind the scenes as it did from people who were out in the streets protesting and doing other things.”

Hamilton, 54, said he and his sisters were profoundly affected by their father’s deeds and the way he went about his business.

“We have adopted that same altruistic perspective—always wanting to help; always wanting to be of assistance; always wanting to strive, to be successful, to prove ourselves, and to improve our communities,” he said. “It also made us keenly aware of the conditions in the African-American community that need to be improved.”

The Rev. Robert Bearden, is the son of Louise Bearden, who helped prepare meals for civil rights leaders when they came to town. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., special to The Times)
The Rev. Robert Bearden, is the son of Louise Bearden, who helped prepare meals for civil rights leaders when they came to town. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., special to The Times)

The Rev. Robert Bearden, son of Louise Bearden

As an 8-year-old, the Rev. Robert Bearden was too young to be part of the civil rights movement. But even as a youngster growing up in the Titusville neighborhood, he had a clear view of family members who were involved.

There was his mother, Louise Bearden, who helped prepare meals for civil rights leaders when they came to town. And there were his older siblings, Nathaniel Bearden and Diane Bearden Crumpton, Ullman High School students who marched and went to jail as part of the Youth Movement.

The Rev. Bearden, 59, remembers having met several of the principal leaders in the movement, including the Rev. Joseph Lowery and the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth. But he says his greatest inspiration came from the Rev. Nelson “N.H.” Smith, then the pastor of Birmingham’s New Pilgrim Baptist Church.

“Pastor Smith was part of the movement,” Bearden recalled. “He and Dr. King were best friends. They stayed at one another’s houses.”

Bearden, now the pastor of Birmingham’s Mount Zion Baptist Church, said he was inspired by the advances achieved by Smith and others.

“I wanted to take advantage of everything the civil rights movement had afforded me to take advantage of,” he said. “One of the main things [the Rev. Smith] taught me is that you have to care about people. You never look down on them. You always try to help them.”

The 59-year-old pastor recalled Smith citing the Bible story of the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt: “He said, ‘Them folks didn’t know they needed to be free. God has called us to help them realize they need to be free.’”