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Marching Forward: Michael Johnson's fight for Selma

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Michael Johnson sensed the weight of the moment building, as if a shot clock was ticking deep inside his mind. The crowd around him was swelling -- tens of thousands of people were in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 2015 -- and they all wanted the same opportunity he was receiving: a chance to shake the hand of President Barack Obama. Johnson knew how blessed he was to be part of the VIP entourage that would accompany Obama as his hometown celebrated the 50th anniversary of the historic "Bloody Sunday" march from Selma. Johnson also had about 30 seconds to educate the president on the current state of this city.

Johnson was a strong student of Selma's history, largely because his mother, Thomasene, had been a part of the march that eventually made it to Montgomery. So Michael knew all about the atrocities, the road blocks, the battles that had to be fought for his hometown to become ground zero in the journey to the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. Now Johnson was eager to inform Obama of a different type of fight in Selma. It was the kind of struggle playing out in too many depressed towns across the entire country.

Johnson's nerves eased when Obama greeted him as "Big Mike" -- a reference to the 6-foot-7, 280-pound frame that allows Johnson to excel as a defensive end for the Cincinnati Bengals -- and from there, Johnson started improvising.

"I said, 'We need help," Johnson recalled during an interview in October. "We need more job training, more job opportunities.' One of the big things I hear is that we don't have any jobs down here, there's nothing to do. Well, we gotta make sure that we're doing our part."

It was over before Johnson even knew what happened. He had asked about some federal programs, and Obama had given him the name of an aide to talk to following the event. After that, Johnson hugged Michelle Obama and strolled off to join the rest of the VIPs. He also thought about the magnitude of that brief exchange.

On March 21, 1965, Thomasene had crossed Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge with nearly 25,000 other people on a trek that would lead to equal voting rights. Fifty years later, Michael was pushing the country's first black president to help with more change.

"When I walked, I knew it was significant, but at the same time, it was different," Thomasene said. "I was a kid. I was like 16 years old, and I didn't really understand what it meant or what it would mean down the road. But here, I could reflect back and say, 'Hey, that's my son. And he's with the first black president.' "

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Like many placeswhere profound historical moments occurred, the Edmund Pettus Bridge is much smaller than one would expect. When Michael Johnson recently stood in the center of the structure, it seemed like the length of a couple of football fields, even though it measures 1,248 total feet. That might be because the supersized Johnson tends to dwarf most everything around him. It also has something to do with how our greatest accomplishments can become larger than life the longer time passes.

Every time Johnson comes to that bridge, he's reminded of everything that has helped shape his heart and his soul.

"My mom, she was one of those people that was protesting in high school," Johnson said. "Just listening to her talk about it, they didn't even know what they were doing. They were just having fun with their friends ... [but] their sacrifices [got] that publicity out around the country to shine the light on the fact that things need to change. So I'm a part of that. I just feel like it's my duty to go out and take advantage of the opportunities that they marched for me to have."

The people who follow Johnson's football career know he's pretty much capitalized on nearly every opportunity that has come his way on the field. He's logged seven years in the NFL since being a third-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. He's amassed 35.5 sacks during that time while earning a reputation as a stout run defender. When a move to Tampa Bay didn't work out -- the Buccaneers released Johnson one season after signing him to a five-year, $43.75 million contract in 2014 -- Cincinnati quickly re-signed him to help the defensive front of the eventual AFC North champs.

The people who know the 29-year-old Johnson down in Selma see a different young man, one who hardly can be defined by his athletic exploits. As Johnson strolled over the Edmund Pettus Bridge last October, he talked about all the dreams he still has for his hometown. Among his many charitable contributions, he's already written checks to cover resources for the town's fire department, a computer lab at his former middle school and a football and cheerleading camp he runs every summer. Johnson openly admits that some locals have encouraged him to think about running for mayor when his playing days end. At times, it feels like Johnson is on a one-man crusade to keep Selma moving forward.

"We honor [the marchers] with our actions," Johnson said. "And I've tried to do that. I believe when Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] said he had a dream, that meant black, white, yellow, whatever ... being able to go out and be productive, and not being held back because of the color of your skin. That's why I'm so passionate about working with the youth."

"We need to understand where we were, but also where we are going," said Johnson's former middle school football coach and teacher Gaylen Denson. "So I think the kids studying the history of [Selma] and then seeing so many successful people like Michael going beyond [is big]. He didn't say, 'Hey, I'm leaving Selma and I'm never coming back again.' He comes back. This is home."

Johnson actually stopped by Denson's classroom at Martin Middle School on a recent visit to Selma. He spent part of his time reconnecting with old teachers and administrators, but he also made a point of speaking to students in the computer lab he donated to the Dallas County School District. The kids listened intently as Johnson talked about some of the history of Selma and why it still matters today. The fight for civil rights is no longer the story in those parts, but equality is something that is still very much on the forefront of Johnson's mind.

As Denson noted, "Michael is saying, 'I made it and now it's time for me to make others understand that you don't have to make excuses. You can make it. You can do it.' "

Added Johnson: "I tell them all the time, 'You don't get to pick your situation that you were born into, your environment, none of that. But what you do get to pick is the effort that you put into each and every day. And you never know who may come along that can help you.' I had so many people that came before me to help pave the way, and now it's up to me to make that path even wider."

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To understand Michael Johnson's missionary zeal, you first have to start with the quiet 66-year-old woman who beamed as she watched her boy during that 50th anniversary celebration. Thomasene saw plenty of celebrities that day -- including former President George W. Bush and Georgia congressman John Lewis, whose skull was fractured during "Bloody Sunday" (the first planned protest on March 7, 1965, that ended with the brutal beatings of several marchers) -- but she was only mesmerized by one.

"I said, 'Oh, look there -- my child is a VIP,' " Thomasene recalled.

What Thomasene knew all too well was that Michael had a similar admiration for her. Michael might have been the VIP on that afternoon, but it was Thomasene who did the heavy lifting five decades earlier. Michael was around 7 years old when he first started hearing the stories -- sometimes just by asking questions, other times by listening to his mother, grandmother and other relatives sitting around the table sipping on coffee. They would talk about the atrocities of their day in the same way soldiers spoke of war, with a candor that conveyed a "this was how life worked" tone. Michael heard about police officers burning his uncles with cattle prods while they were in custody. His eyes widened upon learning that blacks who wanted to vote had to pass government-issued tests with questions that asked for exact counts of bubbles on a bar of soap or feathers on a chicken.

"It was crazy to me," Michael said. "All I knew was I'm American. Yeah, I was young and black. But I knew I was equal. I never thought I had to worry about anybody disliking me or segregating against me because of the color of my skin. And as a child, that's how you are -- you're innocent. You don't understand it."

What was clear to Michael was that his mother was in a much better position to fight that type of racism than his grandmother, Elizabeth D. Smith. Smith was a single parent who worked as a maid for a local white woman. As soon as Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Selma with his fellow activists -- the town already had a strong civil rights presence in the form of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the group that John Lewis chaired -- Thomasene received constant orders to not get involved from her mom. That still didn't stop her from leaving class every time the activists came by the high school to recruit kids to help with protests.

"[The adults] couldn't just go out there like we could," Thomasene said. "They had to take care of their families. So we did it."

That defiance only waned on one day: March 7, 1965.

King had planned to lead his first march from Selma to Montgomery on that morning, a journey that would start with a trek over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. For some reason, Smith's words echoed louder than ever when Thomasene heard them.

"When you know that something is not good, you do have a vibe," Thomasene said. "You have a sense of urgency, or a sense of alarm. And I'm sure she had that sense that first time."

Thomasene ultimately spent that afternoon inside her house, which was located roughly 30 minutes by foot outside of downtown Selma. That distance still didn't prevent her from seeing all the smoke that billowed over the city and later hearing about all the brutal beatings marchers endured at the hands of police and local residents. This was no longer about skipping school to do something more intriguing. That day -- "Bloody Sunday" -- is when things got real for little Thomasene.

The choice was simple for Thomasene after one of the most brutal days in civil rights history: She could stay in that house as the marchers planned their next move or ignore any fears to help create some kind of change. That decision wound up being much easier than she ever knew.

"I did what I thought needed to be done," Thomasene said. "My mother couldn't do it. So I did."

Fourteen days later, Thomasene was back on the streets of Selma, walking side by side with her classmates to the first camp located outside of Selma, which was 15 miles away. (There was a second planned march, on March 9, that King called off before activists started on their route, but Thomasene did not participate in that.) Many of the kids around Thomasene sang, danced and soaked up the moment of the day. There were some teenagers on the frontline who were committed to making the entire 54-mile journey to Montgomery, but that didn't diminish the contributions of those who returned home earlier, as was the case with Thomasene.

The highlight for Thomasene came when she reached that first camp. All the participants were invited to "mass meetings" at a nearby church that night, where King and his fellow leaders often gathered to discuss strategy. Every evening, King would stand before a long line of followers to shake their hands. Thomasene wasn't looking to chat up the reverend in the same way her son did Obama 50 years later, but her moment was just as memorable.

"I got to shake his hand, and I remember thinking, He has the softest hands," Thomasene said. "It was a church where you would always be overrun with people. But that night, I got to actually shake his hand, and that was cool."

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Change is impossible to measure when it's in the process of happening. It starts with a difficult choice, then gains momentum with steady dedication and eventually blossoms into something undeniable. When Thomasene shook Martin Luther King Jr.'s hand as a 16-year-old high school student, she thought it was a perfect ending to a memorable day. Little did she know it would be a key moment in her own transformation, one that would culminate in the raising of Michael.

Years later, long after the Selma march had helped create the Voting Rights Act, Smith lauded her daughter's spirit.

"My mother was very thankful," Thomasene said. "And she recognized that, of all her kids, I was probably the most ... I wouldn't call it outgoing, but I just had more determination probably than any of them. I was just that leader, and she knew that. She told me that." Not surprisingly, Thomasene wanted that same mindset instilled in Michael. The Selma he grew up in was a far cry from the one she knew as a child. There were no segregated bathrooms, no restaurants that wouldn't serve Negroes and no ludicrous tests to pass solely to exercise one's legal right to vote. But Thomasene -- along with her husband, Samuel -- understood the danger of less-visible social traps, and she was committed to keeping Michael from falling into them.

When Johnson was a blossoming athlete in line to attend a predominantly black high school a short distance from his home, Thomasene instead sent him to the more diversified Dallas County High School outside of town. It was a strategy she had adhered to since Michael was a boy.

"As a kid, she would always be on me, telling me not to say 'that black boy' or 'that white boy,' " Michael remembered. "She didn't want me describing people as black and white. And that was [because of what] she went through growing up here -- being labeled, segregated against. She didn't want me to view the world in black and white."

Said Thomasene: "I always told him that, in order for you to have the opportunities that I know you should have, you have to go where there are people of all colors. And so I made sure that, even in elementary, that the schools were diversified. From the very first time he went to the [YMCA], I made sure it was diversified. And I always told him, 'Don't ever feel inferior to anybody.' Always just walk up to them, look them straight in the eye, shake their hand and you say, 'Hey, I'm Michael Johnson.' And so they would know that you knew who you were, and that nothing and nobody was going to stop you."

Thomasene's strategy forged a resolve in Michael that helped him on and off the field. He became a highly recruited football and basketball player who eventually accepted a football scholarship from Georgia Tech. He became his high school's valedictorian. Johnson also cherished his first opportunity to vote, when the 2008 presidential election featured an exciting Democratic candidate with a legitimate shot of becoming the country's first black president.

In fact, Johnson received a special text from Thomasene on the morning of that election day. As he read his mother's words, he could feel her emotions bursting through the phone.

"It hit me, as well," Michael said. "I was like, 'Wow, I'm connected to this.' It gave me a sense of pride. ... Before [black people] couldn't even vote; now they are getting to be voted for."

Michael had a similar sense of pride while eating lunch at his mother's home last fall after visiting his old school. Both he and Thomasene sifted through old photos laid across a coffee table in the family living room. There were black-and-white shots of kids bracing against cement walls as police sprayed them with fire hoses in 1965. There also were several color photos of Obama leading a pack of celebrants over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in that 50th celebration. Michael's face can't be missed in the photo -- it stands a good foot over everyone else in the shot. That also tends to be the picture Thomasene can't resist picking up the most. It says everything about the journey of a mother and a son, the way times have changed and the weight of the dreams that helped alter them. There are so many reasons for Thomasene to be proud of Michael, but she's also grateful for how he's carried the spirit of her fight forward. He hasn't forgotten what Selma should mean for everybody.

It's somewhat ironic that Johnson has become so fond of that bridge, because he was deathly afraid of it the first time he walked on it as a child. He would stand near the railings as a little boy, peering down at the Alabama River below, all the while worrying that the bridge would crumble into the water. Michael was even a forward thinker back then, as he'd ponder how he'd swim against the current and make his way to a safe edge of the shore.

That dread was long gone as Michael made his way behind Obama during that anniversary march over the same bridge. It's been replaced by a deep sense of pride that will always make Johnson want more for Selma.

"I have to pay it forward," Johnson said. "We all do. If you're from down here, it's your duty to go out and fly for those people who marched for us. That's our way of saying thank you -- by going out and doing the best we can in whatever we are doing."

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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