Love And Activism | Essence

Black love comes in many forms—not just the love of a partner but also the love of a people.  For Reverend Nelson N. Johnson, pastor of Faith Community Church, and his wife of 54 years, Joyce Johnson, Black love means committing yourself to multi-generational activism that will elevate your family and your community, all while putting the sanctity of marriage first.

The Johnsons are founders of the historic Beloved Community Center, in Greensboro, North Carolina, which helps to create leaders who will bring “economic sufficiency, peace, and social, gender and racial justice” to the city. The couple’s activism goes back to the fifties and sixties, during the Civil Rights Movement. They have been passionately striving for equality for Black people since they were in high school. Their years of dedicated hard work were recognized through their selection for the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World Award in 2005 and the Beloved Community Award from the Faith and Politics Institute in 2008.

A former airman, Nelson, now 80, served as a leader in the Student Government Association at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (North Carolina A&T) in 1970. He survived the Greensboro Massacre of 1979, when members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party shot and killed five protesters marching against the White supremacist groups. Several other protesters were wounded. Joyce, now 76, a former university professor and research director, became heavily involved in fighting for change when she studied at Duke University. She created the Beloved Community Center’s Jubilee Institute to provide support, training, social and political ­analysis, and leadership development.

“Communication is key, and we do a lot of talking.” —Joyce Johnson

As outspoken advocates and facilitators of truth, fairness and transformative healing, the Johnsons connected through their desire to uplift Black men and women—no matter the danger and uncertainty that came with it.

Joyce and Nelson first met in Greensboro through mutual friends. At the time, she was in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, while Nelson attended North Carolina A&T. “Our friends had directed us toward each other because we were both involved in activism organizations,” Joyce recalls. “It was the 1960s, a period of liberty and freedom, which we need now. Our relationship started as a community connection, and people saw something in us that made them think we should be together doing the work.” “We were so much into the flow of the movement; I remember a lot of driving from campus to campus,” she adds. “There were just a lot of justice struggles going on. So Nelson often picked me up in a 1966 blue Volkswagen to go to a rally. We talked about dreams and aspirations for the world. We both learned that we love children and wanted to have them, but the movement was also the courtship.”

Love And Activism

Although they often debate who fell in love first, Nelson remembers vividly their first kiss. “One evening, we were in meetings working late at the Greensboro Association of Poor People (GAPP) office,” he says. “We got ready to leave, and just kissed. It was a moment. We started seeing each other after that, and talking about the movement; it was all intertwined.”

Three months after meeting, Joyce and Nelson tied the knot, even as they braced for whatever might befall them due to their advocacy. “I felt like we were a target of the police in Durham, and even more so in Greensboro,” Nelson says. “I thought that there would probably be a case manufactured against me, and we wanted to be with each other, so, we went ahead and got married. I saw so much beauty and intellect in Joyce, and she seemed to have seen something in me. So why mess around?”

Things happened so fast, their parents and family members didn’t get the chance to meet until after the two were already wed. Despite the speed, Joyce says the “Holy Spirit” must have been present in their union because it all worked out.

Their daughters, Akua Johnson Matherson and Samori Johnson, have always respected their love story and marveled at their parents’ solid partnership. “Their relationship has always been strong,” says Akua, 52.  “My sister and I know nothing different than my parents being together. And it seems like the older they get, the more connected they are. Everybody in the community sees the same thing: their love and mutual respect. They are an inspiration for the community.” Samori, 51, agrees. “The community sees them as a unit,” she says. “The two of them are very stable forces. I’ve often referred to their love as a duet; they complement each other.”

For both daughters, the most beautiful aspect of their parents’ love, apart from its resiliency, is the couple’s chemistry. “My dad looks at my mom like it was 54 years ago, and she’s the same,” Akua shares. “They still have that excitement.” Nelson and Joyce say their continued devotion and adoration for each other comes from the fact that they can talk about, and talk through, anything. “Communication is key, and we do a lot of talking,” Joyce says. “When you efficiently communicate, you’ll discover things you would never have otherwise.” On the heels of that sentiment, Nelson adds, “We both have a spirit of seeking mutuality over a spirit of domination and the need to be right. We both choose to keep going and allow reality to reveal, down the road, a better understanding.”

Creating understanding and compassion is the foundation of their life’s work. Just as their relationship has stood the test of time, so has their commitment to fighting for the betterment of humanity. From the very beginning, each saw this commitment to the movement in the other, and it created a spark between them. More than 50 years later, the spark burns brighter than ever, and the work continues.

“What motivates me now is my children and trying to make the world better for them,” says Joyce. “Although my husband and I are very different, our essence is the same, in terms of loving and appreciating people and seeing a lot of potential in them. Activism, seeking justice, is life-giving.”

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