Alameda woman shares mementos from Civil Rights Act signing

Alameda woman shares mementos from Civil Rights Act signing

Janice Worthen
First Congregational Church

Ann Johnsen witnessed the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Photo by Janice Worthen.

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Ann Beret Johnsen, a fourth generation Alamedan, watched from the Senate gallery as President Lyndon Johnson signed the act into law. She was just 17 years old.

Johnsen said she could see Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. standing behind President Johnson and was surprised that there were so few black people in the gallery. She felt more seats should have been given to African Americans since she felt it was a more significant event for them.

Johnsen’s mother, a supporter of human rights, secured Johnsen a pass to the ceremony through Congressman George P. Miller, who was then Alameda’s representative. Johnsen said civil rights issues rarely touched her life in Alameda at that time and admitted that she didn’t fully appreciate the significance of the Civil Rights Act when she attended the signing ceremony, but she was awed by the event and her visit to Washington D.C.

One of the things that most struck Johnson during her stay in the nation’s capitol was the existence of separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites.

"Seeing the words 'colored only' in the basement of the United States Capitol building seemed outrageous to me," she said.

At First Congregational Church of Alameda, where Johnsen has served as church historian with Virginia Krutilek since 1995, Johnsen has created a display to commemorate the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Inside the display are Johnsen’s pass to the signing with pictures of her as a young girl and the drinking fountain sign, plus copies of the act and a postcard Johnsen sent to her parents at the time.

The display is meant as a testimony to First Congregational Church’s long history of social justice work and its focus on inclusion and human rights, she said.

The church was founded in 1879, church documents show, and Johnsen said Alameda is fortunate that it had an historian from the beginning to record important local and national events.

“The church has been at the forefront of civil rights since the beginning,” Johnsen said. “We’ve never been hesitant to stand up for the rights of the current minorities.”

Members of the church have often been involved with civil rights causes, movements and advocacy, Johnsen said; her own parents, who were members of the congregation, worked with migrant laborers in Visalia. Larold Schulz, minister from 1985 to 2002, marched and was jailed with Martin Luther King Jr.

Congregant Lois Pryor worked with Cesar Chavez for the rights of farm workers, while another congregant, Janet Gibson, worked to gain passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination against women participating in federally funded educational activities. Church members also marched in opposition to the Vietnam War.

The church ordained one of the nation’s first female ministers, Brita Gill, who served from 1980 to 1984. The following year, Schulz and Krutilek were among the members of the church council who voted to make the church “open and affirming,” meaning that LGBTQ members are welcome to attend, participate, and even serve as reverends. In 1987, the church became the 15th in the United Church of Christ fold to become “open and affirming.”

According to the Reverend Dr. Laura Rose, who has led the church since 2003 and has long been involved in gay rights advocacy, the United Church of Christ was the first denomination to ordain an openly gay person when William R. Johnson became a minister, in 1972.

First Congregational Church has had openly gay reverends, including the Reverend Rose, who said the church has been an equal rights leader in the Bay Area for many years. In 2006, the church resolved to advocate for marriage equality, hanging a sign in 2008 in opposition to Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California, and giving its support to a 2009 bill to end bullying of LGBTQ high school students across the state.

“The attitude of our church has always been, if you’re excluded (elsewhere), you’re welcome here,” the Reverend Rose said.

Johnsen said she was brought up to take a stand against wrongs whenever she saw them, no matter what. One piece of wisdom Johnsen’s parents gave her that she still lives by is, “If you act brave, you are brave,” she said. Johnsen said she’s proud that her church has been brave over the years and has done the right thing even if the right thing wasn’t popular at the time.

Looking back on everything she has done and accomplished, Johnsen expressed gratitude for the experiences.

“I’ve had a good time,” Johnsen said, “treasuring history.”

Comments

Submitted by Lis cox (not verified) on Wed, Jul 9, 2014

Great article about a brave woman. Thanks Ann!

Submitted by Sandy Lindman-Chavez (not verified) on Fri, Jul 25, 2014

I am proud of you, Ann... and our church! What a wonderful testament to your parents -- to teach that you should "stand up for wrongs whenever you saw them." Words we all should adopt! Thank you for sharing. God has truly blessed us for knowing more about you and your rich history.