The lady, somehow, is 89.
It cannot be, but Johnie Mae Coachman – who protested so much in her life, who did not just dream but acted her whole life against poison in the air and poison in the law – can’t walk enough to go to Washington and protest anymore.
Even as the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – the scene of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech – approaches later this month. The most famous speech and protest in American civil rights history that Coachman did not just watch or read about, but participated in.
This is a woman who marched outside a Rock Hill chemical plant decades ago to get the place shut down. The birds were dead near ThermalKem. The paint peeled and people got sick. She did it for days and weeks and years until the chemicals stopped.
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This is a woman who went to school three months a year as a child in all-black schools that were just old buildings without heat or electricity or running water. Lunch was a potato. The other months she worked in the fields, from sunup to sundown starting at age 5 or maybe 6.
“I was a black child and that’s what we did,” Coachman said.
But she was there, 50 years ago, this mother of three who worked in a New York laundry after escaping Southern segregation that had told her throughout her life that she was not equal to whites.
That, Coachman knew, was just plain wrong.
“Jim Crow, I knew Jim Crow,” Coachman said of the slang term for the laws that once mandated segregation. “When I was a child here in Rock Hill, we couldn’t eat downtown. A little girl like me couldn’t get an ice cream for a penny.
“The water fountains, one was for blacks and the other was for whites. The bathrooms. The bus. The restaurants. The schools. The whole world was black and white, and if you were black like me, it meant that you were less, unequal, inferior.
“Not as much a human being.”
York County in 1963 had no black cops or firemen. It had no black elected officials. All Rock Hill schools except one Catholic school were segregated. Winthrop University was all-white. All churches except one Catholic church were segregated.
All places to eat, talk, sit, walk, ride, breathe, live and work were separated by black and white. What jobs blacks could get were subsistence and labor.
The black side of the city was almost all dirt or gravel roads. No water lines. No sewer lines. No indoor toilets.
That’s why Johnie Mae Coachman had left Rock Hill for New York. She was never going to accept that she was anything but equal to anybody else.
That was also why Coachman boarded a bus in New York City before dawn on Aug. 28, 1963, $2 in her purse and a list of songs in her hand to be sung at the march in Washington, D.C.
She left behind three children and a husband, who wondered if this lady who cleaned white people’s clothes would end up jailed at a protest in Washington D.C.
The bus ticket cost $6, round trip.
“There was those portable bathrooms lined up along the road, for us to use,” Coachman recalled. “We sang on the bus, the same songs to be sung at the rally.”
The march 50 years ago was for fair jobs and housing. It was for equality and for justice. It was also, Coachman said, for love.
She carried a pillow to sit on. The only other thing she brought was her voice, a voice that, even now, is a part of the church choir at Nazareth Baptist Church – right across the street from that chemical plant that Coachman helped close.
It was a voice that sang and sang and sang that unforgettable day.
The rally was not just about a speech by Martin Luther King Jr., although that speech – Coachman still calls it a sermon – remains likely the greatest American oratory of the 20th century. It also featured prayers and spirituals sung by the people of America who took buses and hitchhiked and drove to be there.
It was the people of America standing together and saying that wrong would not stand. They stood black and white and Hispanic before God and country. They stood together and they did not yield.
It was dangerous, too.
Every person there – in the eyes of many in the government and society, especially the eyes of Southern segregationists – was not just a protester. They were agitators and un-American.
“We got there and there were so many people, they were like ants as far as you could see,” Coachman said. “It was a congregation. It was black and white and everybody together.
“That was the first time in my life I ever saw a mixed congregation. People singing together, black and white. They were holding hands and they were singing and they were the same.”
Johnie Mae Coachman was right there in those pictures we have all seen for 50 years.
“I sure was a protester,” she said. “Everybody there was protesting.”
They were protesting America not treating all its people the same.
When it was all over, Coachman went home to her job washing the clothes of other people. She then spent 50 years protesting chemicals that poison, and unfairness in schools and anything else that needed a voice that would not be silenced.
The country has made great strides in those 50 years, she said.
“It is a different America, a better America,” she said. “Opportunities are there for people, far more than 50 years ago. There is not Jim Crow, hasn’t been for a long time.”
But that doesn’t mean that blacks and Hispanics are equal to whites in America, she said.
When Coachman sees prisons filled with more blacks and Hispanics, poverty and unemployment and education that still has not put all at the same level, she knows that America is not finished.
“I love America so much that I was willing to fight my whole life for every person in it,” Coachman said. “All of them. The black and the white. Everybody.”
The Rock Hill chapter of the NAACP is chartering a bus to go to Washington to mark the 50th anniversary at a rally sponsored by the national NAACP Aug. 24.
The rally will be about social justice, jobs, guns, education, health care – many of the same issues facing not just black Americans, but all Americans, then and now.
A half century has passed, and the black, brown and white poor surely have not found an equal foothold with the rest of America when it comes to having a level shot at that dream Martin Luther King Jr. talked about.
Martin Luther King III will be one of the men leading the Aug. 24 march.
The people there in Washington will be of all colors. Most will have grown up in an America without segregation and Jim Crow, an America that is closer to equality but still not there.
An America built, partly, by a sharecropper’s daughter named Johnie Mae Coachman.
“I would be there if I could,” Coachman said. “You have to be brave in this life. You have to stand up for what is right.”
Johnie Mae Coachman said all this while sitting in her living room, surrounded by the pictures and awards of her life. Every wall is filled.
She then stood once more and walked slowly to her front door. On that door is an American flag that has flown every day of her life since she was a child.
She stood next to the storm door, and the image of the flag reflected in her glasses. Behind the glasses the eyes shone. There were no tears.