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Amherst man to walk from Selma to Memphis for civil rights

  • Ken Johnston CONTRIBUTED PHOTO



Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 20, 2018

AMHERST — An Amherst man who sees civil rights being eroded through the actions of the president and Congress is taking action by setting out on a monthlong, 400-mile walk aimed at recapturing the spirit of the civil rights movement.

On Sunday, Ken Johnston will be in Selma, Alabama, where he will begin the journey on a path once taken by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., including crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge that was the scene of “Bloody Sunday” during the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches.

“I’m doing it for all those people who feel strongly about civil rights,” Johnston said. “How do we go forward when living in the climate of fear being directed at us by our president?”

Our Walk to Freedom, as he is calling it, will lead Johnston to Memphis, where a little over a month after he begins he will be at the National Civil Rights Museum for a remembrance ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination.

The idea for the walk came from a desire to continue what he began last summer, when he spent weekends walking the length of Massachusetts, from Williamstown to Provincetown. He looked at more ambitious expeditions, including walking the Underground Railroad’s 1,200 miles from the Gulf Coast to Canada.

But when he learned the museum in Memphis had a call out for proposals to honor the legacy of civil rights and promote continued efforts at social justice, Johnston jumped at the chance to put forward an idea.

“That looked interesting and I thought how I could assist other civil rights hubs to do that,” Johnston said.

Although he will be walking solo, Johnston will speak with community groups and civic organizations about how his action promotes civil rights, as well as a healthy lifestyle, noting how much better he felt from the extensive walking while away from his job as temporary staff support at Yankee Candle.

Already, Johnston said this walk is taking on a different tone.

“The meaning of civil rights has become much more real. I’m really feeling it,” Johnston said. “I’m looking forward to hearing whispers from ancestors in my journey to the south.”

But he also hopes to meet people at diners and over coffee, noting he wants to share his life and learn about theirs.

After the 54 miles of the National Civil Rights Trail, the walk between Selma and Montgomery, he will visit historic sites in the Alabama capital.

“I will give myself a day to breathe in the history that’s present there,” Johnston said.

The stretch from Montgomery to Birmingham is also an important part of the civil rights movement, Johnston said, and then it’s on to smaller communities in Alabama and Mississippi, many agrarian and in a landscape that has not changed much in the past 200 years.

He plans to conclude the walk April 2 when he will be at a symposium, “Where Do We Go from Here,” at which former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and former Polish President Lech Walesa will speak. He will be joined by others who are walking from Atlanta, King’s birthplace, and taking freedom buses from Mississippi.

Once his proposal was accepted by the museum, Johnston had seven weeks to plan the walk, which will cost between $3,000 and $4,000 to complete, from buying equipment and medical insurance to creating the website ourwalktofreedom.com, which also has a link to fundraising.

So far, he has packed about 17½ pounds into a backpack, including a sleeping bag, tent poles and clothing, but that will be heavier when food and water are included.

He will also wear a large reflective sign on his backpack that informs people who see him what his walk is about.

Outreach in advance has included talking to representatives at the Brown A.M.E. Zion Church in Selma, making contacts in the larger cities, and trying to find host families or other sites where he can stay, rather than pitching his tent.

Johnston anticipates he will be blogging daily about his observations.

Though no one else will be alongside him, he is getting support locally from the David Ruggles Center in Florence and the Goodwin A.M.E. Zion Church in Amherst.

In his walk last year, Johnston said, he learned that few people walk in the way he is. “In many communities I’d never encounter anyone walking,” he said.

Johnston said this walk will have more spiritual meaning for him, noting he is a student of civil rights and slavery, and this will bring him to its history.

“I want to see and feel how that legacy has continued to the present day and what the future holds for all Americans in how we address race, class and gender,” Johnston said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.