Greensboro couple work to heal racial wounds

By Bart Ganzert

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Joyce and Nelson Johnson say their work is about community.

In 1991, after years of civil rights work and community involvement, the couple formed the Beloved Community Center with the goal of carrying on the nonviolent struggle for social justice embodied by the life and work of Martin Luther King.

That work recently landed the Johnsons a prestigious 2005 Leadership for a Changing World award from the Ford Foundation.

The five-year-old awards program, a collaboration of the Ford Foundation, the Advocacy Institute and the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, honors community leaders who show an “expanded notion of what constitutes leadership” in solving our most urgent community problems, according to the award Web site. Winners receive $100,000 plus $15,000 over two years to carry out work and education related to their cause.

Seventeen winners were named this year from nearly 1,000 nominees.

The foundation identified the Johnsons’ work in addressing homelessness and unemployment in the community, as well as their leadership in coordinating workers in a successful labor dispute with Kmart in 1996 over unfair treatment and pay for African-American and Latino workers.

But the critical factor, Nelson Johnson says, is the couple’s ongoing work to promote truth and reconciliation in the wake of a 1979 shooting in Greensboro.

“Our goal is community-making,” says Nelson Johnson, executive director of the Beloved Community Center. “All is done to promote the spirit of community wholeness.”

The idea underlying the center, he says, is that “a community must be rooted in truth. Where that truth is unwholesome, it must be treated.” That idea has been the driving force behind the center’s initiative for the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project, which seeks to resolve the issue that Nelson Johnson says has been one of the city’s most troubling legacies.

In 1979, Greensboro Communist Worker Party marchers clashed with members of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Party.

A shootout followed, leaving five communist marchers dead and another 10 wounded.

Two trials resulted in the acquittals of the accused gunmen.

Nelson N. Johnson

Job: Executive director, Beloved Community Center

Born: Littleton, N.C., 1943

Education: Bachelor’s, political science, N.C. A&T State University; master’s, divinity, Virginia Union University

Joyce Hobson Johnson

Job: Director, Jubilee Institute, Beloved Community Center

Born: Richmond, Va., 1946

Education: bachelor’s, anthropology, Duke University; master’s, adult education, N.C. A&T State University

Family: two grown daughters; three granddaughters

Inspiration: Jesus, parents, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hammer, Mahatma Gandhi, Harriet Tubman, Rosemarie and Vincent Harding

Who we are: “Baby Boomers who for over 36 years have combined marriage, family, separate careers, and collective work in our community.”

The Nelsons hope the project will bring the community together to think through the event and its aftermath and to bring closure to the conflict.

“We believe that [community] is everybody’s work,” says Nelson Johnson. “We belong in relationships with each other. We are called to the vocation of making community more humane.”

The Nelsons will use the prize to further their work with education, homelessness and civil and economic iustice.

And they especially will continue work on finding a healing answer to the lingering aftermath of the 1979 shootings.

Joyce Johnson, director of the center’s Jubilee Institute, its fundraising arm, says the prize will help with financial resources for the center’s work, but she says she hopes the wider attention that comes with the award will bring more people into awareness of community problems.

“We’re honored and humbled,” she says. “We feel grateful for those who saw the work and gave us the recognition.”

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