During her presentation to the society’s January meeting, Leatrice Mason paid tribute to her sister Mae Etta Johnson. A part of it is printed here to share with all members and the public in general.
“… Instead, I chose to tell you about – My Hero – a Quitman Hometown Hero that not many people know about.
As Martin Luther King, Jr., died fighting for equality and justice throughout America, so did my baby sister Mattie Mae Etta Johnson.
“My mother and father (Woodie & Erie Johnson) became proud parents of a baby girl that they named Mattie Mae Etta Johnson on December 17, 1940, in the Muddy Creek Community in Quitman. She was the youngest of the four children, three girls and one boy. My older sister and I are the only two living children today.
“She was known as Mae Etta to everyone who knew her well. She attended Sunday School and church services at the Muddy Creek Baptist Church here in Quitman and united with the church at the age of six (1946) under the pasturage of Rev. J. H. Harrington.
“As a small child, her favorite place to play was under, up and in a tree in the backyard of our house. Her favorite story on the radio was “Uncle Ben”. Her favorite books were the Bible Story Book in Pictures and a book of poems titled, “Pearls along Life’s Sea Shore.” We didn’t have a television and of course no computers back then, so we all read a lot as children. Mae Etta purchased these books with money she saved from her weekly allowance. She realized at a young age that saving money was important as well as studying the Bible. She used some of her savings to purchase her first bible. She loved going to church and was active in the Sunshine Band, YWA, BTU, youth choir and usher board.Mae Etta worked faithfully on 4-H projects and her good-natured disposition made her an idol of her time. One of her greatest anticipations was being a delegate to the district board meetings. She became a regular delegate to the Cypress District Sunday school and BTU Congress and Cypress District Association.If our mother was unable to attend with her, because she had to work, our Aunt Irene Hunter would gladly take her.
“Mae Etta attended W.B. Clark School in Quitman and graduated with honors from high school in 1958. While she was in high school, she began to make preparation to enroll in Bishop College in Marshall, Texas. Bishop College was founded by the Baptist Home Mission Society in 1881. Their drive was to establish a Texas college for black Baptists.
“Mae Etta was well accepted in the Bishop College family. One of her dearest friends and classmates was Thomasine Parker Cleaver who was also a Quitman native. They both entered Bishop at the same time and continued their friendship. Mae Etta maintained her high academic standing throughout her stay at Bishop.
“In 1960, the struggle for equality, freedom and human dignity was strong on the minds and hearts of many students at Bishop including my sister. She gladly displayed her courage by giving a new dimension to man’s hope that one day segregation would end. and defined the Christian faith and affirmed in an unmistakable manner the dawn of a new day. With God’s help, she believed it could be done as she continued to work on God’s program at Bishop College. She was president of the Wednesday night Bible Band and seemed to gain much strength through studying God’s word.
“As a budding junior at Bishop College in 1960, she participated in a sit in demonstration against lunch counter segregation in Marshall, Texas. Several black colleges all across the South were also active in the lunch counter segregation movements during this time. She and many other students were arrested, charged and fined for picketing stores as well as staging mass demonstrations on the Harrison County courthouse lawn. She was fined $50.
“In a few short years, my baby sister achieved the maturity some never reach in eighty years. She saw clearly and wholly the ultimate implications of the struggle for human dignity and identified her future with it. We, the family, wondered how else could she suffer to be arrested without ever once losing the cheerful smile and the utterly wholesome outlook on life which she always possessed? How else could this letter that I will read to you be explained that she wrote to our mother less than 24 hours after she had spent 26 hours in a Marshall jail at the age of 19?
“Here is the letter:
April 3, 1960,
How are you? I am fine. I guess you know by now we were arrested Friday evening. We were carried to jail at 8 p.m. Friday evening and we stayed there about 26 hours. We got out Saturday night about 10 o’clock. There were 27 of us girls in my cell. Our lawyer is from Dallas. We were bonded out by Negro citizens of Marshall. We are under $600 bonds. The night in jail was not too pleasant, but it was a comfort to know we’re in there to serve a good purpose. We were in for a good cause and none of us minded it really. If it takes a few days in jail to get equality, I feel it’s worth it. I feel that’s the least I can do. I know that God is with us because he has the whole wide world in his hands. I hope they haven’t given you a rough time. What has been said? Be sure and write and tell me. Give everyone my love. I am going to class and study now. Tell UNK hello. Be sweet, I love all of you. Forgive me if I’ve caused you worry. I have lifted a burden from my heart because of my stand. In God’s name we are going to get out freedom.
Your Baby, Etta
“Our family had a real togetherness and supported her in her struggle. We were devastated when we received the news on August 16, 1960, while Mae Etta, her attorney and another student were driving back to their boarding house, that a railroadswitching engine struck the car and killed her and the attorney instantly. The other student was seriously injured. The accident stunned the Marshall community and the legal cases against the students were dismissed. Shortly thereafter Marshall’s public facilities were de-segregated. We do not understand all the ways of God. We cannot comprehend the reason this beautiful and promising life was ushered so suddenly from time into eternity. Her Christian faith can be shared with all; that God does have the whole wide world in His hands.
“Remembering those who dedicated their lives for civil rights such as Medger Evers, John F. and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others, Mae Etta dedicated her life for the cause of getting freedom for her people. She would be proud to see President Obama and his family occupying the White House today.
“We may never see a bronze statue of Mae Etta in a hall of fame somewhere or her letter from jail as a required reading as it once was for every student entering Bishop College, but her epitaph is written in the hearts of all who knew her. No tribute can be too much because Mae Etta did not die in vain.
“The people of Quitman should be proud to know that Mattie Mae Etta Johnson is a part of Black History.”