Catching Up with … HRC award namesake Winston Johnson

The late Coretta Scott King made history in 1986 when she stepped to the podium as the keynote speaker at that year’s Human Rights Campaign Dinner in New York and said, “My dear friend Winston Johnson asked me to be here this evening, and I am here to express my solidarity with the gay and lesbian movement.”

Johnson and his partner Leon Allen later founded the Atlanta HRC Dinner and are namesakes for the Community Leadership award presented every year at the gala. The 75-year-old Midtown resident reflects on meeting King in the midst of a tragedy, coming out to her and more.

When did you first meet Coretta Scott King?

I met her on April 5, 1968—the day after [Martin Luther King, Jr.’s] assassination. I worked for Eastern Airlines and I drove a car at that time for VIPs. I was in the Eastern Club—their first class lounge back then—with [late Sen.] Eugene McCarthy’s wife.

I mentioned to her that this plane bearing Dr. King’s body and Mrs. King was coming in and the mayor and others would be out there to meet it. She said they were good friends and that she’d love to go over to the aircraft. So I drove her to the plane and when Mrs. King came down the stairs, they embraced and then she introduced me to Mrs. King. And Mrs. King asked if [Abigail McCarthy] could come to the house. So I drove her over to the house and in fact, we got there before Mrs. King did. Harry Belafonte answered the door so we were impressed with that. We were there for maybe an hour and then I took her back to the airport.

After that, Mrs. King started traveling a lot and raising money to build the King Center. So we got to be very good friends over many years after that. She traveled frequently. I was called a customer service rep by then and I handled VIPs and celebrities so I saw her frequently. She was usually traveling coach and I would usually put her in first class [laughs].

And going back to that day meeting her the day after her husband’s assassination, what was her demeanor like?

The demeanor that I saw was what I saw for the next 25 years with her. She was very composed and very gracious to the people that she met. I was amazed that she could be that composed considering what had happened.

And when did you come out to her?

Well that took awhile [laughs]. Leon and I were very closeted. I had almost lost my job in 1969 [over being gay]. So we stayed in our closet and when the Pride marches and stuff started in the early ’70s, we were so into our being closeted that I just never thought about talking with Mrs. King about it—until Bowers-Hardwick in 1986 [the U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld Georgia’s sodomy law].

We had become very close to her. So I called her in 1986 and I said, “There’s something we should have talked about years ago. Leon and I are a couple. We’ve been together since 1964.” I mentioned Bowers-Hardwick and she was very aware of it and she knew it was horrible. She said Martin would have hated it and would probably have already been out there for us.

And I said, “Well we wanted you to know because we love you and we know you love us” but I also told her I wanted her to do something important. We’d gotten involved with HRC [Human Rights Campaign] a couple of years before. We went to New York to the HRC dinner in 1985 and we didn’t know gay people did anything like that. So I told her about that and said it’s for gay rights and she said “Well, tell me where and I’ll be there.” And she was there in September of that year, that was in 1986.

And she just really spoke out for the rest of her life and she always said Martin probably would have been with us because of [gay civil rights activist] Bayard Rustin, who helped organize the March On Washington.

I’m curious, did she ever have questions about the LGBT community or things you had to clear up, or did she just get it?

She just got it. I think she got it because of their experience with Bayard, because you know Bayard Rustin was 10 or 15 years older than Martin so he was gay and he was kind of an icon to she and Martin. They knew he was gay and what a good person he was so I think she just sort of got it.

She would send me a birthday card every year and she would always include Leon in notes that she sent. And I’ve got the one where I know she was telling me goodbye. I knew she was sick, I just didn’t realize it was that serious. She talked about that she knew Leon and I were having a rough time because of his Parkinson’s and that she was having health issues too. I went back after she died and I realized that was goodbye in that card.