The pastor at the First Christian Church in Greenwood in the 1950s and 1960s, Aaron Johnson was one of the earliest Mississippi ministers to support the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and then the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Johnson grew up in a sharecropping family, served in the military, and became both a barber and a minister in Greenwood. Johnson belonged to the NAACP in the 1950s as well as to the Citizens’ League, a voting rights group for African Americans in the town. He was one of many African Americans refused the right to vote: in his case, the court clerk declared that he was “mentally incapacitated.”
When SNCC student activists came to Greenwood, Johnson allowed them to use his church as a temporary headquarters. In 1963, after arsonists set fire to buildings next to SNCC headquarters and the local police arrested activist Sam Block, Johnson helped organize a meeting that led to what historian John Dittmer calls “the largest single registration effort in Mississippi since Reconstruction,” involving more than 150 African Americans. For these efforts and for participating in boycotts and efforts to integrate Greenwood schools, Johnson faced both economic pressure and threats of violence. Johnson opened his church to activists earlier than many southern churches, perhaps in part because some of his salary came from the national Disciples of Christ office in Indianapolis.
Johnson was unanimously elected as the first chair of Leflore County’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and he was very active in the group in 1964–66. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s April 1968 assassination, Johnson served as a member of the executive committee of the Greenwood movement boycott, which, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, sought “jobs for Negroes on the police and fire departments and in city and county government, better streets in the Negro sections, equal garbage collection, courtesy titles and other changes.”
Johnson sent his children to newly integrated schools and continued his work as a minister and barber in Greenwood for many years.
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Paul Harvey, Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (2005)
- Aaron Johnson Files, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Sovereignty Commission Online website, http://mdah.state.ms.us/arrec/digital_archives/sovcom/
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)