Andrew Stephens Johnson (1926-1950) and Nathan Wright, Jr. (1923-2005):

UC Students Who Challenged Jim Crow

By Andrea Kornbluh

Andrew S. Johnson, along with fellow UC student Nathan Wright, participated in the historic 1947 Journey of Reconciliation – the first freedom rides.

Sixty-three years ago, in April 1947, sixteen American citizens, inspired by the non-violent direct action campaigns of Mahatmas Gandhi, undertook a two-week campaign to desegregate interstate transportation in the Upper South. The campaign took its inspiration from the actions of Irene Morgan, who in 1944 refused to vacate a front seat on a Greyhound bus traveling from Virginia to Baltimore. After Virginia Courts upheld her arrest and conviction, the NAACP appealed the case to the US Supreme Court. In 1946 the Court ruled that segregation in interstate transportation violated the commerce clause of the US Constitution.  Armed with the Morgan decision, the recently established Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the older pacifist organization the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) organized the 1947 freedom rides, naming the campaign the “Journey of Reconciliation.” The riders sought to make real the desegregation in transportation promised by the Morgan decision.

The first freedom riders –sixteen men—represented a carefully chosen group of activists and a group with strong Cincinnati ties. Two of the youngest participants, Johnson and Wright, were UC students at the time of the Journey.  Wright, who served as the youth director of the West End-St. Barnabas Community House on Findlay Street, had been recruited to the team by Cincinnati’s leading pacifist minister the Rev. Maurice McCrackin (1905-1997) and he brought along brought along his friend, Andrew S. Johnson. The two UC students, along with other participants, travelled to Washington D.C. for an intensive two-day orientation on the principles and practices of non-violence.

A dozen of the participants in the journey identified as pacifists, many had been conscientious objectors during World War II, serving time in federal prisons where they organized hunger strikes and protests over racial segregation and prison conditions. The first freedom riders included a roster of equal numbers of black and white men, drawn from both north and south, they ranged in age from 20 to 39.  Bayard Rustin, George Houser, Igal Roodenko, William Worthy, Charles Banks, Joseph Felmet, Louis Adams, Homer Jack, Conrad Lynn, James Peck, Eugene Stanley, as well as three additional men associated with Cincinnati—Ernest Bromley, Wallace Nelson, Worth Randle (all pacifists associated with FOR/CORE)—comprised the group.

As Nathan Wright recalled in 1997, the men well knew the dangers they faced. “I spoke to my family and told them about my interest in going and told them I knew how dangerous it was.  I knew I might not come back.” No doubt he was thinking of the Isaac Woodard, a recently discharged black veteran returning to his home in North Carolina from a Georgia military base in the summer of 1946. After exchanging some words with a bus driver, he was dragged from the bus, and savagely beaten by a white police chief and his deputy, who used the blunt end of a billy club to blind Woodard in both eyes.  The all-white jury failed to convict the police officers.  Wright recalls his experiences in Robin Washington’s 1995 documentary, You Don’t Have to Ride Jim Crow! and presents a harrowing retelling of his bus journey. Over two weeks between April 9 and April 23, 1947, the men who participated in the Journey of Reconciliation faced harassment, physical attack, and arrest, and they pioneered the techniques which would be utilized by the now much better known Freedom Rides of 1961, also organized by CORE.

As a rider testing racial segregation, Johnson was arrested twice. The first time was on April 12, on a Trailways bus going from Durham, NC to Chapel Hill. The police arrested Johnson, along with fellow freedom riders Bayard Rustin and James Peck, for refusing to move when ordered.  The police took the three men to the police station, but once their lawyer appeared they were released without charge. The next day, April 13, as Johnson, Rustin, James Felmet, and Igal Roodenko tried to leave Chapel Hill, N.C, on a Trailways bus, they were beaten by white cab drivers, arrested, their lives threatened, and they were forced to flee in the night to Greensboro.  After two years of appeals failed to overturn the convictions, Rustin, Felmet and Roodenko surrendered on March 21, 1949, and were sent to the Roxboro Chain Gang for a 30-day sentence (of which they served 22.) Johnson did not return to North Carolina to serve his sentence.  He explained his actions to the Cincinnati Post on March 11, 1949: “The principle of the matter was proper,” declared Mr. Johnson, “But here it is graduation year. I’ve got to worry about examinations and my thesis on the federal income tax structure. I just can‘t make it.  I understand the other three fellows are going through with it.”

Nathan Wright’s career is well documented—a life-long pacifist, prolific author and Episcopalian priest—he is best remembered for convening the National Conference on Black Power in Newark in 1967. A fourth generation college graduate, he earned six degrees, and in addition to his UC BA he received a master’s degree from the Episcopal Theological School and a doctorate of education from Harvard.

Andrew S. Johnson, despite his plans, did not graduate from UC. A resident of the West End, a graduate of Woodward High School, he began UC in 1945 as a student in the college of Liberal Arts. He completed four years of course work, but not his thesis in economics. Andrew S. Johnson died at 23 of tuberculous pneumonia. He is buried in Hillcrest Cemetery.   

In recent years, historians have come to see the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation as a crucial event in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. For this reason, the University of Cincinnati should honor the two students, Andrew S. Johnson and Nathan Wright, Jr., who risked their lives in pursuit of equality.