A great lady died Wednesday. She changed America with courage and song.
Her name was Johnie Mae Coachman, and after more than 91 years on Earth she died.
America is a better place for everybody because of her.
Coachman was born into segregation in York County, born black when that meant second class or worse. In 1963, she was a wife and mother and had left segregated York County years before for New York to try to find equality. She washed the clothes and sheets of white people here and there to feed a family.
And at church, she always sang. She sang songs of equality, joy and love. She never said a bad word about anybody, even if those people said bad words about her and called her names.
“The water fountains, one was for blacks and the other was for whites,” Coachman told me in 2013 of the Rock Hill of her youth. “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.”
So when Coachman heard that Martin Luther King Jr. was going to hold a jobs and dignity rally in Washington, D.C., in August of 1963, she borrowed $6 for a bus ticket and packed a brown bag lunch. With $2 in her purse, she went to be a part of history.
She was a protester. She was in those famous pictures, those old TV tapes, somewhere, that show hundreds of thousands of people of every race standing hand in hand and listening to the most famous civil rights speech in this country.
“We got there and there were so many people, they were like ants as far as you could see,” Coachman said in 2013 on the 50th anniversary of that march. “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.
“I sure was a protester ... Everybody there was protesting.”
Coachman’s protest was simple: In America, then and now, all people are equal. All religions, all colors, rich and broke.
She spent her whole life saying that everybody is equal.
Coachman came home to Rock Hill a few years afterward and stayed until she died. She was a fixture at the VFW Post where she sold Buddy poppies and was in the ladies auxiliary. She sang a million songs at Nazareth Baptist Church. She was a leader the last two decades of her life at the senior center at the York County Council on Aging.
“I love America so much that I was willing to fight my whole life for every person in it,” Coachman said in 2013. “All of them. The black and the white. Everybody.”
Johnie Mae Coachman had dignity that changed America. Her home was always filled with American flags and red, white and blue decorations.
The lady who will be in charge of Coachman’s funeral arrangements, Monique Ramseur, knows more than a little bit about protest. Her late mother was part of the protests in Rock Hill in 1960 and 1961 for equality for blacks.
“Johnie Mae Coachman was great and she was part of history,” said Ramseur.
A laundress and a protestor for civil rights, Coachman made sure she was on the biggest stage of all in 1963, and in life.
She stood up for the rest of us and demanded equality and dignity – and she did it with a smile and with song.
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065