Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I am Thankful for a Father who was a Good Man

James Ellis Johns was a good man. When I was a child I heard my mother pray for him every day, “Lord save Ellis, he’s a good man, a good husband and a good father.” She often said “children, your father is a good man.” I frequently heard her describe him to others the same way. This was long before his salvation and it was true.

I grew up in an age of intense racism. When I was a preschool child I went to the water fountain at Penney’s. There was a long line but I spotted another fountain close by with no one waiting. I got a drink and turned to go back to my mother when a middle-aged white woman whom I didn’t know stopped me and rebuked me, “Boy, don’t you know better than to drink from the colored fountain?” The porcelain looked white to me.

I asked my mother what I had done wrong and she explained that white people were supposed to drink from one fountain and colored people were supposed to drink from the other fountain. I had gone to the wrong fountain but that was OK; Mom said it didn’t matter.

A few years later Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and things got tense across the nation, especially in the south. Persons of color were made equal citizens by law if not by fact. Racism is slow to release its control over social structures. Buses may have begun to place children in the same school rooms, but they were still worlds apart and their parents were even more divided.

Dad drove truck for Ryder Truck Lines. All of the road drivers based in Jacksonville were white. They made more money than the city drivers who made deliveries and the dock workers who loaded the trucks. Dad had started out on the docks before transferring to the city and then to the road. After the Civil Rights Act passed one of the black dock workers requested to transfer to the road. Some of the white drivers started a petition to change the union rules to prevent the transfer. Dad refused to sign. This act of goodness was in fact a brave and dangerous rejection of social norms.

I was probably twelve years old when I answered the phone that day.

“Is this James Johns' house?” The voice was muffled and artificially rough making it hard to understand.

“Who?” I asked, momentarily confused by the reference to “James.” Everyone I knew called Dad “Ellis” or “Speck.”

“James Johns,” he forcefully replied.

“Yes, this is his house, but he is not here. He is at work.”

“When he gets home you tell your Nigger-loving dad we know where he lives and he had better sign that paper if he don’t want trouble to follow him home.”

I thought it was some kind of joke and I handed the phone to my mother. Her response made it clear this was no joke.

When Dad got home I overheard portions of a conversation between them. Mom said, “They mean business.. You had better be careful.”

The tension continued for a few days and I got up the nerve to approach Dad. “Dad, why don’t you just sign the paper. If they don’t need your vote what difference does it make if you sign it.”

“Son, the way I figure it, he’s a man just like I’m a man. He has the right to support his family just like I do. I won't be signing no petition.”

I am thankful my Dad was a good man long before he was a saved man. He could not be budged from doing what he believed to be right. From him I learned that all men are created equal, but that some men have to be willing to suffer for that truth if it is ever to become a reality in social practice.

Cleveland, Tennessee
April 20, 2010


Anonymous said...

Your father was a very good man and so is youngest son.

睿玄 said...


babydoc1030 said...

I have never heard that story before. I'm a little that you have a childhood story I haven't heard. Your father was a good man, and I am grateful to have these stories to one day share with my Charles Ellis.

babydoc1030 said...

I meant to say "shocked that you have a story I haven't heard before"...

Anonymous said...

He was a good man and he and mom instilled goodness in their kids - even if I do say so.