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Labor Goes with Civil Rights

Gene Lantz
15 Apr, 2017
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Peter Johnson told me some good stories while we were marching through downtown Dallas in the annual Good Friday march on April 14, 2017.

[caption caption="In 1971, Peter Johnson fasted on the steps of Dallas City Hall" align="center"]

Peter was sent to Dallas by Martin Luther King Jr to organize the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), and he stayed to involve himself in just about every civil rights activity since the 1960s.

I started out by asking Peter if it were true, as I read in "The Accomodation" by Jim Schutze, that United Auto Workers provided security guards outside the Mount Olive church where the civil rights movement officed during the days of dynamite and hatred in South Dallas. "Yes," he told me, "Pancho brought these big, burly guys!"

He referred to FF Francisco "Pancho" Medrano, our long-gone mutual friend and civil rights representative for the Auto Workers International. I was glad to confirm what I already suspected, that Pancho was the one responsibile for setting up all-night security guards at Mount Olive. Now I'm doubly sure that those "big burly" security guards were brothers from my own local, UAW 848 in Grand Prairie, because that was Pancho's local, too.

But Peter went on talking about  the UAW and the labor movement in association with the civil rights movement that he has been involved in for more than 50 years. We talked some more during the march, then he came on my radio show on KNON the next day to talk some more. I found out that Peter Johnson,who has probably never been a union member, is one of labor's most ardent supporters.

"If it hadn't been for the labor movement, and the UAW," Peter said on the airwaves, "some of us would probably still be in jail!" Peter knows a lot about jails, you might say he knows them inside and out. He mentioned that the principal of his high school in Plaquemine Louisiana had gone to jail for preaching civil rights. But Pancho brought UAW money when Peter was jailed, and he made bail!

Then Peter told me about one particular 18-day fast that he did on the steps of the old Dallas City Hall in 1971. It's the building on Commerce, still used by police, that became famous when Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered there while in police custody. Peter said that Pancho came every day during the fast to join in prayers. One day Pancho suggested to Peter that it would be good to get the leadership of the UAW International to come to the steps of City Hall to publicize the fast and advance the cause of civil rights.

"I didn't think those big leaders would come down all the way from Detroit," Peter said. "But sure enough, here came Walter Reuther and the rest of them to join in with us!"

Not every union joined in with MLK and the controversial civil rights movement, but the UAW put in money and people. During the great march of 1963, when King became famous for having a dream, one white man stood on the podium with the African American leaders. Walter Reuther of the UAW!