Being that he was a toddler still three months shy of his second birthday, Curtis Johnson doesn’t remember where he was 50 years ago today.
But it’s a good bet that the older members of the future Tulane football coach’s family were gathered around the TV in their home in St. Rose, watching Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his enduring “I Have a Dream” speech.
“I’m sure it was on,” Johnson said. “Dr. King was a very important person in our house.”
The idea that Curtis Johnson would one day become the first black coach of the Green Wave would have been considered a distant dream that day, but maybe less so than Barack Obama, born in the same year, would one day become president.
Then, as now, sports, along with music, was ahead of the curve when it comes to affecting attitudes about social change.
A half-century ago, a white high school freshman in Tennessee could take it for granted that his school was segregated while still considering Willie Mays and Willie McCovey as his favorite athletes.
And now, as our racial nerves seemed to have frayed to the breaking point this summer, LeBron James is our most popular athlete, succeeding Tiger Woods who succeeded Michael Jordan.
If there’s a true meritocracy in America, sports is as close as it gets.
Racism, at least the overt variety, has long disappeared. The ability to help your team to win trumps everything else.
“I wouldn’t say sports is color blind,” Johnson said. “We all have our personal preferences and prejudices about certain things, and they are still there.
“But what sports can do is bring us all together.”
Go to a Saints game, seemingly there as many black fans sporting Drew Brees jerseys as there are white fans.
And when Johnson, who begins his second season Thursday against Jackson State, was named coach of the Green Wave last year, there was far less discussion about his race than the fact that he had never been a coordinator, much less a head coach at any level.
It didn’t go entirely unnoticed though.
“There was a lot of pride in my family,” Johnson said. “It was almost like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to make it for us.’
“My folks looked on this like it was a miracle. If my hiring is a sign of the times that things are getting better, then it’s because of what people like Dr. King did.”
Although King didn’t mention Louisiana in his speech, the Civil Rights Movement proved to be no less tumultuous for the state than it was in Alabama and Mississippi. That week, so many demonstrators were arrested just up the Mississippi River in Iberville Parish that the jail ran out of room.
Johnson’s father, Curtis Johnson Sr., was a civil rights activist who in 1977 became the first black member of the St. Charles Police Jury, a post he held during the transition to parish council until 2000.
Johnson Sr. died in 2004. A plaque in his honor is displayed at the parish courthouse in Hahnville.
Curtis Johnson Sr. wasn’t all about politics. He had played in the New York Yankees organization, becoming exposed to places and conditions that were alien to St. Rose a decade later.
That, Johnson Jr. said, led him to believe that life for black people could be better in Louisiana, and he worked to make it so, becoming one of first black law enforcement officers in the parish before moving to other areas of public service.
“We never had any crosses burned in our yard,” Johnson Jr. said. “But there were phone calls and other threats and fear of what was going on in our neighborhood.
“Our parents didn’t try to shield us.”
Johnson’s older sister, Lynette, became the first black student at St. Charles Borromero in LaPlace in 1965. CJ followed her three two years later. There he, Hernendez Robottom (father of former Tulane player and current graduate assistant Casey Robottom) and Michael Dupree (father of five-star wide receiver prospect Malachi Dupree of John Curtis) endured hostility early on but left as athletic heroes.
“I don’t think that our players from today understand that time and how difficult things were,” Johnson said. “Initially we were rejected because we were different.
“And then, after we got going, it was like, ‘Hey, it was OK.’”
Wasn’t the idea of us being “OK” with each other what Dr. King was saying that day?