Editorial: Walking mission for civil rights

  • Participants, some carrying American flags, marching in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. —Library of Congress/Peter Pettus

Thursday, February 22, 2018

When Ken Johnston has a mission to accomplish, he gets on his feet and starts walking.

Last summer, Johnston wanted to get an up-close look at Massachusett s and its residents, so he spent weekends walking almost 300 miles across the state.

Starting Sunday, Johnston, 57, of Amherst, has a more ambitious goal. He plans to walk 400 miles between Selma, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee, arriving at the National Civil Rights Museum in early April to take part in events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I’m doing it for all those people who feel strongly about civil rights,” says Johnston, who works as temporary staff support at Yankee Candle in South Deerfield. “How do we go forward when living in the climate of fear being directed at us by our president?”

His Walk to Freedom was accepted by the museum as part of its effort to promote social justice and honor the civil rights movement. “I asked myself what could I do to honor the legacy of Dr. King’s ideas? What commitment of myself could I offer the civil rights movement today? How could I pay homage to our ancestors who sacrificed so much for our freedom?” Johnston explains on his website, ourwalktofreedom.com.

When his walk ends, he plans to attend a two-day symposium “MLK50: Where Do We Go From Here?” on April 2 and 3 hosted by the University of Memphis School of Law and the National Civil Rights Museum. Among the expected participants are former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Lech Walesa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and was Poland’s president from 1990 to 1995.

There will be a commemorative ceremony April 4, 50 years after James Earl Ray fatally shot King while he was standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The civil rights leader’s slaying led to racial violence nationwide.

Johnston, who is African-American, will begin his 37-day journey after church Sunday in Selma, taking the 54-mile National Civil Rights Trail to Montgomery. He will follow the same route as King did during the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches, including crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge where police attacked some 600 civil rights marchers on March 7, 1965, which became known as “Bloody Sunday.” 

The portion of his walk between Montgomery and Birmingham also has important significance for the civil rights movement, according to Johnston. Later, he will walk through smaller  farming communities in Alabama and Mississippi. His goal is to walk about 100 miles per week.

He figures the walk will cost between $3,000 and $4,000. There is a link to a gofundme page from his website, and he has local support from the Goodwin A.M.E. Zion Church in Amherst and the David Ruggles Center in Florence.

Though Johnston will walk alone, he plans to speak with community groups about how his walk promotes civil rights and a healthy lifestyle. Johnston is seeking host families as well as organizations who want him to speak. He encourages them to email him at kjohnston16@yahoo.com.

Johnston also wants to meet people in less formal settings, at diners or over coffee, to talk about his life and learn about them.

That is similar to what Johnston did last summer when he set out to understand “what the late, great Sen. Edward Kennedy loved about Massachusetts.” From North Adams to Provincetown, Johnston said he found interesting people and places, though he was surprised there were not more walkers, particularly in western Massachusetts.

Johnston says he gained insights about New Englanders — independent-minded with a liberal spirit is how he describes them — and was reminded of the beauty of Massachusetts. “it’s very clean state and the state has remarkably clean and wonderful pristine waterways.”

That experience also inspired him to embark on this new journey farther from Amherst, where he attended the University of Massachusetts and has lived for 15 of the past 20 years. “… I finished walking across Massachusetts last summer and sensed that I needed to keep going. I heard the whispers of our ancestors in the words of the great Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman: ‘Keep going, if you want a taste of freedom, keep going!’” 

We applaud Johnston for his passion and energy, and wish him well on his mission to promote civil rights.