The Rev. Ira Joe Johnson grew up in Twiggs County and was 17 when he met Martin Luther King Jr.
King had come to Macon on March 23, 1968, to speak at New Zion Baptist Church. Twelve days later, he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.
The experience inspired Johnson to devote his life to promoting civil rights, and he worked for many years in various government positions related to civil rights issues.
Now living in Atlanta, he talked in a telephone interview with The Telegraph about his plans to attend the dedication of the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington. Johnson spoke Aug. 21 at New Zion Baptist Church, encouraging others to attend the dedication Sunday.
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QUESTION: Why do you think it’s important to go to the dedication of the memorial?
ANSWER: I’m going because I have to go. I’m going to salute America. I’m going to say thank you to America because my whole life was motivated and instructed by my meeting with Dr. King ... days before he passed. Everything I’ve done is because of my meeting with him. He asked me to come to Washington for the Poor People’s March, but as you know that march never happened. As a young black male from Dry Branch, Georgia, I feel compelled to go there and thank all of those who made America what it is today.
QUESTION: Talk about the day you met Dr. King and what was said.
ANSWER: It was March 23, 1968. I lived in Twiggs County and was a student at Jeffersonville High School. Dr. King had reached out to young folks to come to Macon and hear him. My cousin and I went up, and after a long time (King’s plane had been delayed by weather) the morning turned into afternoon, and after about five hours people started leaving, but I stayed to hear from this man who was leading the struggle for us, the black community, who were oppressed.
I waited in the church, and there was a loud thunder of applause, and he came up and he preached. I don’t remember everything he said, but I do know he was asking us to come to Washington. He was saying “We aren’t going take it anymore. We are going to keep on marching and keep on walking.”
Dr. King said we are going to Washington, and we are not going to beg. We were all geared up to go, and then he was assassinated.
Like a lot of young men across the country, I didn’t know what to do. In the North they rioted, but it wasn’t in my heart to do anything like that. Secondly, you have to be compelled to call on God and your mind as to what you are going to do. What compelled me was to write a letter to The Macon Telegraph, and it was titled “Why would anyone want to kill a man who preached love?” It appeared in The Macon Telegraph (after King’s death). Long story short here, that article caused me to go to Morehouse College. When I talked to Dr. King he asked me to go to Morehouse when I graduated high school, and he asked to me to come to Washington and join them then. Then Memphis happened.
QUESTION: What do you think of the memorial?
ANSWER: I think it’s wonderful what they did. I was very, very pleased, not just with the memorial but even when we got the King holiday. That was the affirmation that I needed that America is the America we had hoped it to be. In a real sense, the preamble (of the Constitution) says “To form a more perfect union.” You have Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. You have Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation. Dr. King said, “Live up to what you have on paper.” All we are trying to do is ask America to do what you have on paper, and it did with this honor to Martin Luther King.
To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.