Meet the Dallas civil rights activist whose work in Fair Park inspired the play 'Travisville'
Rev. Peter Johnson came to Dallas in 1969 to promote a film about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He stayed to fight for Black homeowners in Fair Park. The acclaimed play is in Dallas for the first time.
The Reverend Peter Johnson was only 23 when he came to Dallas in 1969, but he was already a civil rights veteran. He was a member of the SCLC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where Johnson's colleagues and supervisors included Andrew Young and John L. Lewis.
The irony is that Johnson didn't come to Dallas to organize a movement. He came to raise money.
After Dr. King's murder in 1968, his widow Coretta and their children were left with very little. Hollywood supporters of King, including Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, developed a documentary, "King: A Filmed Record - Montgomery to Memphis," and planned to use it in some 800 screenings around the world to raise money for the family.
Johnson was ordered to Dallas to arrange the fundraiser.
"Seven hundred and ninety-nine cities around the world welcomed a movie on King's life," Johnson said. "There was only one city on earth that said, No."
"I took it personal," he said.
The actual answer from the Dallas leadership, according to Johnson, contained a racist slur about Dr. King.
Eventually, the screening in Dallas did take place on the appointed date — after some pressure from Hollywood producers and one wealthy Dallasite writing a couple of last-minute checks.
But the experience made Johnson determined to stay in Dallas "and teach this city a lesson" about its Black residents. While he was here, Johnson said, a number of Black Dallasites "would come to my hotel [room] and beg me for help."
They lived around Fair Park. And they were facing the exact situation laid out in the stage drama, "Travisville" by William Jackson Harper,the former Dallasite-turned-TV-sitcom star.
A young, civil rights activist has appeared in town, and the ministers fear this stranger might upset the delicate understandings they've worked out with the white establishment. The ministers keep their congregations in line, while they get a little bit of influence here or there. They can do their flocks some good, but they're ultimately at the mercy of the the white establishment keeping its more violent bigots under leash.
A real seat at the power table to shape the choices? That's not an option.
The ministers do have a defense for this betrayal of their churchgoers' civil rights:
"Keeping people safe" is how the Elder Alden Hearst put it. Hearst is the aging leader of the ministers' alliance, played by Calvin Gabriel.
"How do we know he's legit?" Hearst demanded about the young activist.
"Doesn't matter," responded Minister Gunn, played by Jerrold Trice. "Seriously, what matters at this point, all that matters, is that somebody stands up."
Somebody stands up, that is, against the city's new plan to buy out the households in a Black neighborhood. The town leadership is supposed to pay fair-market value. But the white establishment is intimidating Black homeowners to accept pennies on the dollar — and then all their homes will be bulldozed for a new development.
It's just not right, Gunn argued, when the Black community has a "clear moral imperative" to be treated the same as white homeowners.
Since when, Hearst yelled back, "does the Negro got rights in this town?"
The dialogue is imaginary. But the argument about Blacks having limited options when they aren't at the table was real. It was laid out in Jim Schutze's racial history of Dallas, "The Accommodation" — the book that inspired Harper to write his play, which received an acclaimed off-Broadway production in 2018.
Driven from home
In 1969, the argument was real for the Fair Park neighborhoood and so was the young, out-of-town activist, the play's catalyst.
"The city was taking their homes, not their houses, not their land," Johnson said. Their homes.
And the city's Black leadership was unable to stop it.
According to Johnson, Dallas wanted "to get all the colored people from around the Cotton Bowl because the Cowboys played at the Cotton Bowl now. And white people was uncomfortable, coming into that poor Black community."
One reason Schutze wrote his book, The Accommodation, was to explain an unusual situation. Around the country in the '50s and '60s, well-established Black ministers often — at first — opposed the destabilizing influence that Dr. King and the civil rights movement in general brought to their communities.
But in Dallas, it wasn't individual ministers who objected. It was an entire, organized group, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.
"Because they were under the foot of the white power structure here," Johnson said. "Texas did not have national banks. Every bank in Texas was owned by a white family. So if you wanted to be a preacher in Texas, you had to bow down to these white people."
Banks "called the note"
The preacher would need a loan to start his church - or buy his home.
"That was the only way you could do it," Johnson said. "National banks were outlawed, branch banking was outlawed in Texas. So if a pastor got in conflict with the white power structure, they'd call the note on his church. If that didn't get his attention, they'd call the note on his home."
This was all part of "the Dallas Way," Schutze wrote — keeping things smooth and safe for business, usually white business. As a result, Dallasites frequently insisted their city was not another violent, racial backwater like Birmingham, Alabama, or Little Rock, Arkansas. That would be bad for business.
"One of the craziest things that I faced in Dallas," Johnson said, "was Black people in Dallas didn't understand they lived in the South. They looked down their nose at people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Texas is the most Southern Southern state. Texas had more lynchings than any other state. The worst form of segregation, the most brutal form of segregation in the South, not Mississippi -- Texas."
If one looks at the neighborhood around Fair Park today, it's debatable whether all that much has changed since 1969.
True, the park itself is under new, non-profit management, Fair Park First, with new ideas. But the neighborhoods immediately around the park remain high-crime areas. Middle-class whites generally visit only when the State Fair or Broadway Dallas is open for business.
But a little more than a decade after people asked for Johnson's help, some of them were sitting at the power table — including Elsie Fay Heggins (the first Black member of the Dallas City Council) and seven-time city councilmemberAl Lipscomb.
"Poverty is poverty," Johnson said of Fair Park today. "The problems of bigotry and racism [that poverty created] are ongoing challenges to Black communities.
"But we cannot allow the status quo to be accepted."
The final weekend of Soul Rep Theatre's production of "Travisville" has been cancelled because of COVID. But the company has arranged new performances January 4-8 at the Margo Jones Theatre.
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