Dr. Mordecai Johnson was born on January 12, 1890 in Paris, Tennessee. His parents, Wyatt and Carolyn, were former slaves. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago. He also studied at Harvard and Rochester Theological Seminary. In 1911 he joined the faculty at Morehouse College. Johnson was pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Mumford, New York and the First Baptist Church of Charleston, West Virginia. He married Anna Ethelyn Gardner in 1916. The two had three sons and two daughters. In 1926 he began his 34-year presidency at Howard University. He was the first African American to serve in this capacity. In 1928 Johnson received his Doctorate of Divinity from Gammon Theological Seminary. He died in 1976.
Dr. Johnson was considered a gifted speaker. Martin Luther King, Jr. credited one of his lectures on Mahatma Gandhi as a source of his belief in nonviolent resistance. Some speculate that Dr. Johnson’s greatest contribution to the cause of civil rights was his role in transforming Howard University’s Law School into an assembly line producing some of the finest civil rights attorneys and law professors in the nation. Charles Howard Houston, who Johnson appointed to lead the law school in 1929, was a key architect of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that ended school segregation.
In this very interesting pre-Brown speech, Dr. Johnson begins with God and rhetoric: “We have no power whatsoever to force a program of any kind. We have only the power to persuade. But the obligation to persuade is upon us today as if God Himself had made us an assignment.” Clearly sensing the changing political and racial winds, Johnson tells his Emancipation Day listeners that they must work for but two things: desegregation and equal job opportunities. Southerners fear such fundamental changes, claims Johnson, for the simple reason that they have no confidence; they have no practice with democracy. Southern states, he argues, have practical experience with neither democracy nor Christianity. He believes that Christian values, once introduced, will inevitably lead Southerners to a soul searching reform.
In the remainder of the speech, Johnson moves to foreign affairs, specifically the battle for the political allegiances of millions of the worlds’ colored population. His reasoning is a fairly simple Cold War racial calculus: continue to deny rights in your own country, and the world will look to the Communists and Russia. Blacks can help defeat the Communist menace by voting for only those politicians who support desegregation. Of course Johnson’s exhortation begs the question for many blacks: voting would not be an option for them for another 11 years.