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Meet the Dallas civil rights leader whose work in Fair Park inspired a play

The Rev. Peter Johnson came to Dallas in 1969 to promote a film about Martin Luther King Jr. He stayed to fight for Black homeowners in Fair Park.

The Rev. Peter Johnson
Rev. Peter Johnson of Dallas poses for a portrait in front of a poster of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Oak Cliff office in Dallas, Wednesday, March 21, 2018. (David Woo/The Dallas Morning News)(David Woo / Staff Photographer)

By Jerome Weeks

The Rev. 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 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 the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’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 sent 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.

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.”

Inspiring ‘Travisville’

They lived around Fair Park. And they were facing the exact situation laid out in the stage drama Travisville by William Jackson Harper, the Dallasite-turned-sitcom-star.

It was set to run only two weekends at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park and was nearly sold out. But the following Tuesday, an actor tested positive for COVID.

Soul Rep Theatre canceled the final weekend of shows. To make it up, the company has since added four January shows — on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

In a December rehearsal, four actors in the production played a scene in which influential Black ministers in a Southern town fall into arguing.

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 table to shape the choices? That’s not an option.

The Rev. Peter Johnson
The Rev. Peter Johnson continues his fast on Dallas City Hall steps in March 1971. Johnson was fasting to dramatize his contention that there are people starving in Dallas.(Joe Laird / The Dallas Morning News)

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 Black people 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 neighborhood, 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 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 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.

Why?

“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.”

From left, Ministers Gunn (Jerrold Trice) and Fletcher (Wes Frazier) in Soul Rep Theatre...
From left, Ministers Gunn (Jerrold Trice) and Fletcher (Wes Frazier) in Soul Rep Theatre Company’s regional premiere of William Jackson Harper’s “Travisville,” a fictionalized account of Jim Schutze’s Dallas race relations book “The Accommodation.” The play is running at the Margo Jones Theatre in Fair Park, not far from where some of the events it depicts took place.(Malcolm Herod)

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, Ala., or Little Rock, Ark. 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 that much has changed since 1969.

True, the park itself is under new, nonprofit management, Fair Park First, with new ideas. But middle-class white people generally only visit the neighborhood when the State Fair or Broadway Dallas is open for business.

However, a little more than a decade after Black people asked for Johnson’s help, some of them were sitting at the table — including Elsie Fay Heggins (the first Black member of the Dallas City Council) and seven-time City Council member Al Lipscomb.

On Thursday — the 60th anniversary of King’s visit to the Music Hall at Fair Park — Broadway Dallas will unveil its first public exhibition, “South Dallas Stories: Fair Park Uprooted.” The purpose of the display is to commemorate “the vibrant though problematic history of Fair Park/South Dallas and its community members.”

Of that “uprooted” area today, Johnson said, “Poverty is poverty. 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.”

Details

Jan. 4-8 at the Margo Jones Theatre. 1121 First Ave. in Fair Park. soulrep.org.

Read more Arts Access stories.

Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

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