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Barber shop was hub of civil rights activity

The Barber Shop is a small, four-wall establishment with few identifying features. There is no classic red-and-white-striped barber pole nor is there the familiar cursive writing begging customers to enter.

But the bare-bones building was during the 1950s and 60s much more than a stop for a hot towel shave and a buzz cut.

It was a gathering place for blacks to register to vote and for leaders of the Greenwood African-American community, where they could freely discuss strategy and plans under the guidance of the barber shop’s owner, the Rev. Aaron Johnson.

When Carl Hodo purchased a barber shop in south Greenwood, he kept things pretty much the same as they were before he owned it, down to the name.

“It’s just called the Barber Shop. They’ve always called it the Barber Shop. It’s Mr. Johnson’s barber shop,” Hodo said, trying to recall the exact date that he purchased the one-story, anonymous-looking building.

Johnson was also pastor of the East Percy Street Christian Church. He was the first clergyman in Greenwood to open his church’s doors to civil rights activists, a dangerous move that earned him life-threatening consequences. Johnson has since passed away, but in an interview with The New York Times in 1998 he said that he received frequent telephone threats, got chased off of highways by speeding cars and had his windows broken into.

East Percy Street Church, which still stands proudly a few blocks over from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, hosted civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

“Evers’ last trip to Greenwood was in that church in February 1963,” said state Sen. David Jordan, who was himself often present at both barber shop and church meetings.

Evers’ presence at the church was made more significant by the fact that the 37-year-old activist was assassinated in June the same year in the driveway of his Jackson home. Byron De La Beckwith was ultimately convicted of the crime in 1994 and died in prison.

Jordan, who also is a member of the Greenwood City Council, said that the groups that met in Johnson’s barber shop and at East Percy Street Church talked about the most effective ways to achieve the right to vote, specifically through voter registration.

“We talked about freedom. At that time we didn’t have any rights at all,” said Jordan.

“Only 40 percent of African Americans in Greenwood were registered to vote,” he explained. “Our goal was to get people registered to vote. After the Voting Rights Act, we put federal registers all over the county to make sure people registered.”

Johnson was a crucial instigator of the goal to get people registered. In 1962, three years before the Voting Rights Act was passed, Johnson brought small groups of black voters to the courthouse to register to vote. He himself tried to register several times, but each time he did he was told that he had failed to accurately interpret a section of the Mississippi Constitution.

Jordan met Johnson when the two were in high school. They worked together at a box factory during the Korean War, and they became lifelong friends.

“That’s who cut my hair. He was my barber,” said Jordan.

Johnson’s civil rights activism continued long after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Johnson dissuaded young protesters from heading downtown to air their grievances, understanding the threat for violence.

“He stopped the people from going downtown the day after Dr. King was assassinated. He saved some lives that day,” said Jordan.

Johnson’ legacy holds a solid place, even for those who never heard him preach. He was known not just as a civil rights activist and preacher, but also as a sharp barber.

John Potts, a fellow barber in Greenwood, said that that’s how he always knew him.

“He was a nice, honest barber,” he said.