Emory Report
November 26, 2007
Volume 60, Number 12

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November 26, 2007
Johnson Institute inspires social advocacy

Rudolph Byrd is professor of American Studies in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts and the Department of African American Studies and the founding director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, I was a freshman in a largely white, suburban high school of Denver, Colo. I was, therefore, very far removed from the bloody and chaotic scenes of Memphis, Tenn., where the Dreamer drew his last breath, and in many ways I was too young to understand the import of this tragedy for our nation and the world.

After the death of Dr. King, I was angry, bewildered but also hopeful. Through study and activism, I began to make sense of these contradictory emotions. With guidance from my teachers, I began reading more systematically in history and literature. Perhaps the most important discovery I made during that period of searching and mourning was James Baldwin, in particular his “The Fire Next Time” (1963).

In this now landmark essay, I discovered the defining features of Baldwin’s nonfiction prose: the majesties of language, the marked sense of history, and something I had never encountered before, an unrelenting critique of the failures and the possibilities of American democracy. I subsequently read everything I could find by Baldwin. He provided me with a framework for understanding Dr. King’s assassination and its riotous aftermath. He also provided me with a framework for understanding events that preceded Dr. King’s death: the 1963 March on Washington and the church bombing in Birmingham that took the lives of four black girls; Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964; and the March to Selma in 1965.

As I studied the civil rights movement as well as the lives of the women and men who actualized it, I felt, above everything else, a mounting sense of indebtedness. Almost at every turn, I had benefitted from the leadership and sacrifices of men and women who represented the full spectrum of American life. This being true, I was determined to know more about the civil rights movement and its meaning for my own life.

My study of the civil rights movement eventually led me to James Weldon Johnson, poet, novelist, composer and, among many other things, advocate for civil rights. As the first African American to serve as executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Johnson was a pioneering figure in the modern civil rights movement. Along with others, he prepared the ground for the emergence of Dr. King. Like Baldwin, Johnson was a man of letters and also a man of action.

These were just the models for which I had been searching. All of this and more stand behind my commitment to establish, with the support of others, the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies at Emory.

Established in 2007, the Johnson Institute is named for James Weldon Johnson. It is the first institute at Emory established to honor the achievements of an American of African descent. As a project in the field of African American Studies central to the intellectual life of the University, the institute enjoys the support of the Department of African American Studies, Emory College, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Office of the Provost.

The Johnson Institute is a means through which Emory seeks to actualize some of the strategic initiatives of its strategic plan. Among those initiatives, Race and Difference occupies a place of importance. Through its research and public programming, the Johnson Institute is one site where members of the Emory community, and the several communities beyond Emory, are challenged to reflect upon and examine the shifting, complex meaning of race and difference in history, culture and civil society in both a national and global context.

The mission of the Johnson Institute is to foster new scholarship, teaching and public dialogue that focuses upon the origins, evolution and legacy of the modern civil rights movement, and its impact upon other social movements. The Johnson Institute actualizes its mission through the Visiting Scholars Program, the core program of the institute. Supported by a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Visiting Scholars Program supports new scholarship on civil rights in the humanities, the humanistic social sciences and law. With a thematic focus upon the modern civil rights movement from 1905 to the present, the Visiting Scholars Program is the first and only residential program of its kind in the nation.

As social advocacy was a defining feature of the life of Johnson, so too is social advocacy a defining feature of the intellectual life of the institute. Capturing powerfully interrelated aspects of the life and scholarship of Johnson, the institute’s Social Advocacy Program is a resource for scholars and activists committed to social justice and reconciliation through nonviolent means. As the vision of the Johnson Institute is an open but applied mind serving all of humankind, the institute realizes this aspect of its vision through the sponsoring of annual workshops that provide participants with training in nonviolent direct action, the method championed by Dr. King and inspired by the example of Mohandas K. Ghandi.

As a place of contemplation and action, the Johnson Institute will be one of the premiere sites in the nation for the study of the modern civil rights movement. Through the institute, we also seek to foster public dialogue on all aspects of African American life and culture within the expanding framework of the African diaspora. The richness and complexity of Johnson’s own life calls us to this vital and urgent work.

In the tradition of call and response, a distinctive element in black music and culture, the Johnson Institute cannot be what it aspires to be unless you participate. To learn more about the mission and programs of the Johnson Institute, visit jwji.emory.edu. As we approach the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, we wish to be in dialogue with you, and invite you to join our expanding circle of scholarship and social advocacy.