Mel King is second inductee
When NH Public Radio asked me several years ago which Granite Staters had inspired me, the first person I named was Lionel Johnson.
As one of the founders of Manchester’s NAACP branch in 1964, Lionel was at the center of local and statewide civil rights activism until his death in 2004. He understood the sting and oppression of racism, and dedicated his life to practical, sometimes slow steps toward achieving justice. When the Martin Luther King Coalition gave him a special award in 1988, he told me, “You only have so much time on earth to live. If you don’t produce something for humanity, what are you here for?”
It was therefore an honor to be present on Saturday when Lionel was formally inducted as the tenth member of the NAACP’s New England Civil Rights Hall of Fame.
Rev. Alan MacKillop, who now chairs the Manchester NAACP, described Lionel as the driving force behind the movement for New Hampshire recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and as the unofficial civil rights conscience of the state. As Alan said, Lionel was especially devoted to the state’s youth, and served on legislative committees dealing with youth issues during his 8 terms in the NH House of Representatives.
When Lionel and others started the Manchester NAACP in 1964, the organization was a moderate force within the growing civil rights movement at the national level. For example, at a time of freedom rides and sit-ins, the NAACP shunned civil disobedience in favor of lawsuits to bring about change. But in Manchester, where Union Leader publisher William Loeb ruled the city from his office on Amherst Street, the NAACP was seen as a dangerously radical outfit. Inez Bishop, who was also involved at that time, told me Saturday that Lionel was one of the few men in the Black community who was willing to stand out and speak up.
Mel King, a long-time community activist from Boston’s South end, was also inducted into the Hall of Fame Saturday. Mel gave a good speech, and read a poem he had written which contrasts the “love of power” with the “power of love.” His statement that there is “no such thing as an illegal person on this earth” was one of the biggest applause lines of the evening.
Mel and Lionel join a pretty exclusive group. The New England NAACP initiated its Hall of Fame in 2008. The only other members so far are Senators Ed Brooke and Teddy Kennedy, Kivie Kaplan, Ermino Lisbon, Thomas Atkins, Gerald Talbot, Moorfield Story, and Dick Gregory.
Perhaps the New England NAACP will realize by next year that there are also women deserving of recognition. But as Lionel often said, people who work for social justice over a lifetime do it to support change, not to get awards.