Talking with David Johnson, a Civil Rights icon

David Johnson book coverMy days often don’t go as planned, but it’s a rare pleasure when the deviation from the plan lands me in a guided tour of the past given by a true Civil Rights era icon.  I’ve known David Johnson for many years, first as one of my neighbors and then, funnily enough, after he moved out of my neighborhood as one of my Mom’s neighbors.

Here’s what I knew about David until a couple of years ago:  he’s a lovely, courtly, kind, and intelligent gentleman who used to be a photographer. In 2013, though, on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., I learned a bit more about him: he was Ansel Adams’ first African-American student and he was a man with a camera at the heart of the Civil Rights movement. He was therefore invited to be an honored part of the anniversary festivities in Washington.

To tell you a bit more about David, let me share with you a brief passage from a longer article at Apogee Photo Magazine, which ran a very nice article about him.  This passage picks up after David’s childhood in Jim Crow Florida and after he’d served in the Navy during WWII:

Fueled by his love of photography Johnson broke a racial barrier at age 19 in 1946. Living in Jacksonville, he saw an article in the local paper announcing that Ansel Adams, already a nationally renowned photographer, would head the photography department at the California School of Fine Arts. Johnson wrote to Adams, requesting permission to join the class and stating that he was a Negro. In Adams’ reply, he admitted Johnson to the school and added that his race did not matter. When Johnson enrolled, Adams welcomed him into his home, where Johnson lived during his photographic studies. Adams counseled him early, “Photograph what you know best.” This wise advice led to Johnson’s enduring and wide-ranging chronicling of African American life.

As the selected accompanying photographs attest, Johnson’s photographs document African American culture of the last six decades, including the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the poignancy of daily life. His work also celebrates individuals in politics and culture. When employed by a local newspaper, he photographed many celebrities, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, and the poet Langston Hughes. He also captured entertainment idols, such as Nat “King” Cole, Eartha Kitt, blues singer Ruth Brown, and jazz guitarist “T. Bone” Walker.

Equally compelling are Johnson’s images of ordinary African Americans. These speak today—a young boy sitting pensively on a fence; weary civil rights marchers in Washington, DC; a father watching his daughter on a carousel. As forceful are images of a man lounging in a shop doorway, proud deacons at a storefront Baptist church, and children of two races delighted to pose together, oblivious of their different skin colors.


Anyway, I was visiting at my Mom’s retirement community today when I ran into David in the hall. He invited me into the library to join him in looking at the book that his wife wrote about him a few years ago: A Dream Begun So Long Ago: The Story of David Johnson, Ansel Adams’ First African American Student. Standing beside me in the library with the book open before us, David explained to me the story behind each picture, and what a rare and lovely spread of pictures it is.

I got glimpses of David’s childhood, and the stepmother who raised him as if he were her own child; the adorable urchins in San Francisco’s Hunters’ Point when it was still a strong black community and not a blood-stained government housing experiment; the Fillmore District when it was neither a torn-down slum nor a yuppie haven but was, instead, the heartbeat of black culture in the City; the people in Watts after the famous riots; the beautiful, proud women he loved and married; and of course the rising Civil Rights movements. I stood next to the man who photographed Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Nat “King” Cole, Paul Robeson, and all those other men and women of dignity who fought for their individual rights against the powers of the Southern state governments. (For my thoughts about Jim Crow and government power, go here, to read one of my favorite of my own posts.)

One of the things I noticed when looking at his pictures from the Civil Rights movement was that the people he captured didn’t look angry, they looked determined.  If you go to this page and play the slide show, the fourth picture along, one of David’s iconic pictures, shows a beautifully dressed woman near the front of a crowd of people gathered together to listen to a speech supporting Civil Rights.  In her hands, she clutches some papers, on one of which you see the words “We demand” — which is what he called the photograph.

It’s a very powerful image, not of people screaming in rage, but of people firmly, strongly, bravely demanding that the government accord them the full civil rights to which they are entitled.  There’s an enormous dignity here that is entirely at odds with the recent round of “civil rights” protests.  These are the living heirs of the original abolitionist awareness, arising from the Christian doctrine that values each person’s individual worth as a child of God:  “Am I not a man and a brother?”

When I commented on this different tone to David, he agreed.  This was, he said, a determined, not an angry movement, although David noted without passing judgment that the tone changed as Malcolm X rose.

In addition to their historic interest, David’s photographs are lovely on their own terms.  It’s obvious that he wasn’t just one of Ansel Adams’ students, but that he was one of Adams’ good students.  I’m a terrible photographer myself, but I know good stuff when I see it, and his is good.  The people in his pictures aren’t just frozen in black-and-white.  They burst out of the photographs with a dynamism that makes them quite exciting. David valued the people he photographed, whether the person was famous or just someone like the rest of us.

If you enjoy beautiful photography from the mid-20th century, and if you’re interested in the real Civil Rights Movement, or in San Francisco history, or in mid-2oth century black culture, please check out David’s website and, if you’re really interested, think about buying his book.