Legendary activist Winston Johnson, 79, passed away May 11, 2021. For once fully recognized, Winston was the subject of a major tribute in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on May 14th, “Cancer claims ‘quiet but fierce’ advocate for LGBTQ.”
Some folks are pillars of our community and of our city, and Winston is one such person. When wondering how to respond to the all too frequent assaults on our rights, I would look to Winston, and his strategy was always both pungent and practical. Although he didn’t become a gay activist until his 40s, Winnie was sharp about the best course to take and adamant we are first class citizens, fully and incontrovertibly equal.
He did not equivocate.
As someone who came out about the same time as the Stonewall riot, I’m moved by what Winston and his late husband Leon Allen endured in the not-so-fabulous 1940s and 1950s. Growing up in Greenville, Florida, Winston was all too aware of the Johns Commission campaign in Florida to publicly expose gay men and hound them out of their jobs and homes. Our late friend Richard Rhodes actually fled Florida to escape being picked up by the police for simply going out to gay bars. In 1967, Winston and Leon decamped for friendlier turf in Atlanta.
I can’t imagine what it was like to flee your home just to stay out of jail.
Living with Leon but encased in the closet in his job at Eastern Airlines, Winston successfully deflected his supervisor’s charge, “I hear you are a homosexual,” and immediately transferred. His new assignment involved escorting VIPs, and so he was chaperoning Abigail McCarthy on April 5, 1968, when she was campaigning for her husband Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was running for president. Eastern employees informed Mrs. McCarthy that Coretta Scott King was arriving from Memphis carrying Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., home to his final rest. Winston escorted Mrs. McCarthy to Mrs. King, who he reports was composed despite her loss, and Mrs. King invited them to her house for Dr. King’s wake.
What I love about Winston is how regular a guy he was. “Harry Belafonte was in the kitchen!” he exclaimed when I asked him about the wake. Even in tragedy, he still managed to be starstruck. Gleefully irreverent, Winston enjoyed his rep as “the upgrade queen” and religiously booted Mrs. King up to first class as she continued Dr. King’s work. Over the years, Winston and Leon helped Mrs. King build the King Center and secure the King holiday and eventually became part of her extended family — even while some of Mrs. King’s family spoke gay slurs about them and Mrs. King’s longtime aide Lynn Cothren.
However, it wasn’t until 1986 that Winston officially came out to Mrs. King. When the Supreme Court decided in the Bowers v. Hardwick decision that outlawing same-sex relations was allowed, Winston called his new friend Vic Basile at the Human Rights Campaign Fund. “I have a famous friend who could speak up for us,” Winston confided, and Vic said, “Oh yes, please!”
“Well, the problem is, I have to come out to her” Winston added.
So, in a late night phone conversation, Winston finally told Mrs. King that he and Leon were a couple. “Winston, I knew you and Leon loved each other,” Mrs. King said.
I revel in the fact that Winston did not miss a beat. “Well I’m going to ask you to do something then,” he exhorted. A simple “where and when” from Mrs. King and, poof! She became keynote speaker at the Human Rights Campaign dinner in New York in September 1986 and remained our steadfast ally until her passing in 2006.
It’s remarkable how personal connections impact history, even if most of us don’t know celebrities. The civil rights movement and the LGBTQ rights movement coalesce in two people. Because of them, there is a direct line from the ongoing struggle for civil rights to the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ rights.
At a time when our rights were on the ropes, Winston changed our future, enlisting powerful advocates for us, such as Mrs. King and Julian Bond and John Lewis, among others.
I am honored to know him and strive to emulate him.
Winston Johnson’s personal archive now resides at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript Archives and Rare Books Library (MARBL) at Emory University.