Journalist has front-row seat to Civil Rights Movement, 1968 convention

September 7, 2012

(Photo by StoryCorps)

The Democratic and Republican conventions just wrapped up, pretty much without incident.

That wasn’t the case during the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and journalist Donald Johnson had a front-row seat. Johnson tells his daughter, Laurel, that he was working for Newsweek at the time. He was out in the streets covering the violence, and saw police hitting reporters and photographers.

1:23 JOHNSON: I saw a police officer run up to a photographer for the Sun-Times and just smash a camera into his face.

Johnson said he called Newsweek and told them:

StoryCorps’s mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to share, record and preserve their stories. These excerpts, edited by WBEZ, present some of our favorites from the current visit, as well as from previous trips.

1:37 JOHNSON: You better get down here and send somebody down here because when we write the story, we don’t want you saying we’re making stuff up, that it’s not happening.

Johnson said he saw mini riots breaking out all over, and saw more colleagues getting injured by police,

2:22 JOHNSON: It was not pretty, nor kind. It was really a bad thing.

Johnson was born in Honduras, and moved to the U.S.. He became a journalist in the ‘60s, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. But as he tells his daughter, Laurel, he wasn’t an early convert.

00:00 JOHNSON: When I first came, I used to think, hmm, I’ve got nothing to do with this civil rights thing here. After all, I speak​ Spanish. I’m not from here.

Two things changed Johnson’s mind. He said he came to the realization that although he wasn’t from the U.S., in this country,  he was considered black. And he saw dogs being let loose on African-American protestors, and people being hanged. He was outraged.

Johnson's daughter wondered if he felt like journalism was his way to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement.

Yes, he said, adding that Fred Hampton, the leader of the Black Panthers in Chicago who was later killed by police, kept asking him to be secretary of education.

00:54 JOHNSON: I couldn’t do that gun thing. I couldn’t do it maybe because I could do it all too easily. Picking up a gun is a limited kind of a future for you.

Katie Klocksin helped produce this story.

Categories