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Craig A. Thompson: Honoring the life of Rev. Harvey Johnson

As we reach the end of another month-long celebration of African-American history, it would be irresponsible to neglect mentioning one of the pioneers in our city who worked tirelessly to make it possible for black lawyers and business people to develop and thrive.

Although some are familiar with the contributions of Rev. Dr. Harvey Johnson, many more are not. Much of our city’s political, business and legal realities in 2011 can be attributed to the work of Rev. Johnson, and our region should be thankful for his efforts as well as those with whom he worked.

Harvey Johnson was born in Fauquier County, Virginia in 1843, the son of slaves. He, like many others, migrated to Alexandria, Va., after the Civil War seeking a new life during the era of Reconstruction. He later moved to Baltimore to become pastor of Union Baptist Church.

First civil rights group

Toward the end of Reconstruction, a number of groups attempted to reverse the gains made by African-Americans after the war. In response, Rev. Johnson and others formed what many have called the country’s first civil rights organization in 1885.

The Mutual United Brotherhood of Liberty was formed and chartered to “use all legal means within our power to procure and maintain our rights as citizens of this common country.”

As an initial strategy, the organization attacked the laws that legalized racial inequality in Maryland. Despite a number of cases that interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment in a manner unfavorable to blacks, Rev. Johnson and other leaders still saw the judiciary as the ultimate insurer of rights.

In mid-October 1885, the organization held a conference on the issue of civil rights at which Frederick Douglass provided the main address.

Around that time, the group fought for the admission of the state’s first African-American attorney and won. Everett J. Waring was admitted to the Maryland Bar without condition and later became the first black lawyer to argue a case before the Supreme Court.

Rev. Johnson’s leadership also paved the way for other black lawyers to gain admission to the Maryland Bar. These lawyers attacked issues such as the exclusion of blacks from jury boxes, the absence of black teachers in the city’s public schools and the deteriorated condition of public schools for blacks.

Dismantling discrimination

Many of Johnson’s efforts paved the way for the dismantling of discrimination in public transportation, education, finance and even in the church. He organized protests criticizing members of the majority clergy and fought for greater inclusion and equity within the church structure.

Rev. Johnson’s philosophy of self-determination and equal opportunity caused him to push assertively for more teachers, business owners, politicians and civic leaders from the African-American community. He was a staunch supporter of educational excellence and economic security, and looked at business and law as critical elements of justice in our state.

Much of our current legal and business climate can be linked to the efforts of Rev. Johnson and others generations ago.

Union Baptist Church has long been recognized as a pillar of strength in Maryland and the nation. Its roots run long and deep, and many champions of civil rights have been bred and groomed there.

Rev. Harvey Johnson is certainly one of those champions, and our lawyers, business people, politicians, educators and others owe him and many who organized with him a great deal.

Craig A. Thompson, who writes a monthly column for The Daily Record, is a partner at Venable LLP, and represents clients in the areas of commercial litigation, products liability, and personal injury. He is the chair of the firm’s diversity committee. He is also the host of a weekly two-way talk radio show, and the author of a series of children’s books on African-American history. His e-mail address is CAThompson@Venable.com.