How LGBTQ and Civil Rights Came Together with Two People

Since the 1960s, Atlanta has touted itself as “the city too busy to hate.”

Indeed, Atlanta integrated peacefully, unlike most of the rest of the South, moved in no small part by chaos being bad for business (take that, Donald Trump). Of course,
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is also our most famous hometown hero.

True to this spirit, our LGBTQ community has always been a multiracial coalition. One of our first Black gay leaders was Lendon Sadler, who grew up in his mom’s beauty shop on Auburn Avenue and who organized anti-Vietnam War protests in the 1960s. Notable also were Melvin Ross, who cofounded Atlanta Black and White Men Together; community organizer extraordinaire Hubert Alexander; and Gene Holloway, who helped lead Atlanta Pride in 1976 and thereafter.

Sadly, all four have moved on across the great Rainbow Bridge.

Still here is my beloved buddy Winston Johnson, a white man who enlisted Coretta Scott King into our cause, along with her longtime aide Lynn Cothren. As he tells it, Winston grew up in redneck rural Florida in the 1940s and 1950s and in the mid-1960s escaped with his husband Leon Allen to the Big A where they could live openly together (and did so until Leon passed in 2006).

Alighting at Eastern Airlines, Winston became the company’s de facto celebrity handler and was chaperoning Abigail McCarthy on April 5, 1968. Like today, upheaval was rampant in the 1960s, and in 1968 Senator Eugene McCarthy was challenging sitting president Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination. Abigail was out campaigning for him when she and Winston were told Mrs. King was arriving from Memphis carrying Dr. King home (Dr. King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968).

“We’re good friends. I want to see her,” Mrs. McCarthy replied, and she and Winston met Mrs. King coming off the plane. I always ask how Mrs. King was that day, and Winston describes her as being composed. Much later, Mrs. King told Winston that she and Dr. King prepared as much as they could for this awful scenario.

From that day forward, Winston handled Mrs. King’s travel on Eastern (Delta was not as progressive). He lived up to his nickname, “the upgrade queen,” moving Mrs. King to first class wherever she went carrying on Dr. King’s activism. Simultaneously, Winston and his spouse Leon aided and abetted in building the King Center and creating the national King Day holiday.

Then came the infamous Bowers v. Hardwick Supreme Court ruling on June 30, 1986, when Atlantan Michael Hardwick challenged Georgia’s sodomy law after being arrested in his own bedroom with another man. Surely we’ll win this one, we all thought, and then SCOTUS in its infinite wisdom upheld the law and all sodomy laws in every state that still had them. I recall reeling down the street with the realization that we have no right to privacy.

Winston knew Vic Basile at the Human Rights Campaign Fund and told him I have a prominent friend who could speak up for us. “Oh yes please do so!” Vic said. “Well, the problem is, I have to come out to her,” Winston told him.

After setting up a late-night phone call with Mrs. King, Winston finally told her: “Leon and I are a couple.” Her response? “Winston, I knew you and Leon loved each other.”

Thus, Mrs. King became the keynote speaker at the Human Rights Campaign dinner in New York in October 1986, and the guest of honor at the first HRC dinner in Atlanta in 1988. Now the HRC bestows the Winston Johnson and Leon Allen Community Service Award every year at their Atlanta soiree.

Until her passing in 2006, Coretta Scott King was one of our most outspoken allies. On June 28, 1996, she addressed Atlanta Pride in Piedmont Park: “We share common adversaries. The church burners and the gay bashers drink from the same poisonous well of hatred. I want to assure you that I will continue to support you in your efforts to rid our country of all forms of bigotry, racism, sexism and homophobia.”

And she did.

Atlanta Magazine calls Dave Hayward the unofficial historian of LGBTQ+ Atlanta. He is the founder and coordinator of Touching Up Our Roots, which celebrates the contributions LGBTQ Georgians make to expanding civil rights for all people, creating civic and neighborhood groups, and enhancing local, regional and national culture.