A Fighter Named Lyle:
Civil Rights Activist
Written by Germain Pokie and Illustrated by Olivia Mitchell
Civil Rights activist Lyle Johnson was a brave white man who felt inclined to leave his pregnant wife and children in Chicago and go march with Dr. Martin Luther King. There he found the local townspeople unwilling to serve them food in restaurants and calling them horrible names. History came to life for young author Germain Pokie who did an outstanding job telling the story of a fighter named Lyle.
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Civil Rights Activist
Lyle Johnson was born in 1936 in Red Wing, Minnesota. This was a town with many people of Scandinavian descent. His mother worked as a teacher on a reservation and witnessed the poor treatment the Native Americans faced. Lyle’s mother was an advocate for them and raised her children to treat everyone with respect. Her influence led Lyle to quickly become involved in the civil rights movement.
In 1956, Lyle married his wife Gwen who shared his desire to fight for social justice causes. Together the couple hoped to help bring about change. They moved to Woodstock, Illinois and raised their family there. The couple became involved with the civil rights movement when Lyle was working at Pleasant Valley Farm, an outreach program of the Community Renewal Society of Chicago. The camp served families, teens, children and seniors, mostly from the inner city of Chicago. The staff included those from the Chicago area as well as international students and volunteers.
Gwen was pregnant with their sixth child when Lyle felt compelled to join Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on a march for freedom in 1965. As he discussed this with his wife, she bravely gave her blessing for her husband to join others from Chicago on a bus trip to Montgomery, Alabama. They knew there could be violence; in fact, they were given instructions on how to be non-violent before leaving. They were not to do so much as raise a fist to those against them. There was to be no fighting back, whatsoever, per Dr. King who did not believe in violence.
The leader of Lyle’s group was Reverend John Porter of the Englewood United Methodist Church. Their group was associated with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Chicago. They stopped in Tennessee and were paired up, men with women. Ironically, Lyle was paired with a woman who shared his wife’s name, Gwyn, which made him feel even more responsible for keeping her safe. The men were to walk the women to the door of the restroom and be there to protect and serve them on this important journey.
In Montgomery, Lyle remembers being called so many horrible names by the townspeople. He had never experienced anything like this before. It was evident the marchers were not going to be given a warm welcome. The Montgomery police were out in full force, and they were name-calling, too. Unfortunately, they were unkind to the peaceful protesters. The National Guard was there, standing post on top of the roofs, armed with machine guns. They were clearly preparing for the worst. There were several speakers that day, including the legendary Martin Luther King, Jr. After the event, Lyle’s group was not welcome in any of the restaurants because of their affiliation with King. Instead, the black community fed them.
Lyle met a woman who was the first white woman killed during the civil rights struggle. When the march concluded on March 25, Viola Liuzzo, along with Leroy Moton, a 19-year-old African American, shuttled marchers and volunteers from Montgomery back to Selma in her car.
After she dropped people off in Selma, they headed back to Montgomery. When they stopped at a gas station, they were subject to racial remarks by those who opposed the Civil Rights movement. A car tried to force them off the road. Later, when Liuzzo stopped at a red light, a car with four white men pulled up alongside her. The men belonged to the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a hate group whose members wear hoods and robes to protect their identity.
The Klansman saw a white woman and a black man in a car together so they followed. They shot directly at Viola Liuzzo, hitting her twice in the head and killing her instantly. The car crashed into a fence and, although Leroy Moton was covered with blood, he was not shot. He lay still when they came to the car to check on their victims. When they left, Moton flagged down a truck driven by Reverend Leon Riley who was also shuttling civil rights workers back to Selma. Viola Liuzzo died in Lowndesboro, Alabama, on March 25, 1965.
Lyle’s group heard the horrific news of Viola’s death on their way home. Briefly, they considered going back to pay their respects but then decided to go back home to Illinois. When Lyle returned home to Woodstock, he called his home church in Minnesota to see if they wanted him to come there to speak and share his experiences about working with Dr. King. They refused him.
Lyle continued to work as an activist for civil rights. He marched with Father James Groppi in Milwaukee, who was famous for fair housing marches in that city. He also marched with a Hispanic community to keep out drug dealers in San Diego, California. Like most people, he was deeply grieved when Dr. King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. He has never stopped standing with those he feels are downtrodden. Lyle believes you always have to keep to the moral high ground and stay non-violent.
A BOOK by ME, a book series developed by Deb Bowen, empowers students to preserve history by telling the story of unsung heroes in our communities. For the young participants, it’s a guided cross-curricular project that gathers stories of people who do amazing things but have received little or no recognition. Students learn how to publish a picture book that is a primary source document with photographs and a biography.
Since 2003, Deb Bowen has been arranging meetings between students and individuals from the WWII generation. This intergenerational storytelling results in unique storybooks written and illustrated by kids for kids in the A BOOK by ME series. More about Deb Bowen >