Civil Rights Pioneer Aaron Johnson and the Author Who Helped Him Tell His Tale
The Man from Macedonia
The Man from Macedonia may well be considered a masterpiece in the realm of autobiography in the near future. Published in 2010, this book is written from the perspective of Reverend Aaron Johnson – once a principle figure in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's, who continued to be active in the advancement of Civil Rights thereafter, and culminated his groundbreaking career in establishing an influential prison ministry which continues to this day.
Aaron Johnson's Co-author
A cursory reading of this book may leave the reader astounded at how a man nearly 80-years old managed to describe in vivid detail episodes from his life which occurred nearly half a century ago. As it happens, Johnson was not alone in the composition of this manuscript – he had invaluable help in the form of his coauthor, Deb Cleveland.
This writer recently had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Cleveland about her role in producing such an excellent book, and her relationship with the excellent man behind it.
Cleveland describes her work on the book thusly:
"My job was to get into Aaron’s head and organize his story. He’s had several lives that had all meshed together in his memory and needed to be sorted out. By the time I finished the book, I knew the dates, times and places when something happened in his life, better than he did. He had his memories and I researched facts that validated his memories. I interviewed over one hundred friends, co-workers, parishioners, and family members. My job was to learn to sound and think like Aaron so that the narrative would be seamless and authentic."
The Meeting of Aaron and Deb
Deb Cleveland had already been a writer before she ever met Aaron Johnson, and despite his remarkable story, it had never been his ambition to put it down on paper. This all changed when Johnson met Dennis and Debbie Walsh. Dennis and Debbie had become involved in Prison Fellowship Ministries, which is where they brushed shoulders with Johnson – a principle mover within the ministry. It was the Walshes who, upon hearing Johnson's story straight from the man's lips, were convinced that this was a story that had to be told. Deb Cleveland describes the fateful event:
"The Walshes called me to see if I would be interested in writing Aaron’s story. (At that point I had had one book published and several articles published.) The Walshes flew me down to North Carolina to meet Aaron to see if we felt we could work together."
Deb and Aaron met one another at the church where he ministered. She ascended the steps and the two locked eyes. Immediately, both Deb and Aaron saw a potential obstacle. She was white, and he was black. They were decades apart in age. Could they really tell a story of racial division and reconciliation together? Deb describes how the story progressed from there:
"We saw each other, we smiled, and then we were old friends in a matter of a few minutes. Despite our age difference, born in two different generations, our different life experiences, and our ethnic diversity we immediately became family. I got him. He got me. I’m pretty sure [we had a] spiritual connection. We both had lived a life of ministry. We understood that life, and the different paths that life brings."
The bond between Deb and Aaron didn't stop in their co-authorship and shared ministries. Soon Deb developed a friendship with Aaron's wife, Maddie. Aaron become something of a father-figure and mentor to Deb's son, and a friend to Deb's husband, Gary.
In fact, when Deb's life was interrupted by a tragic turn, her friend and co-author became an invaluable support:
"Aaron and Maddie surprised us during Gary’s illness and came to visit. After Gary’s death I found myself one day pulled over to the side of the road weeping uncontrollably. At that exact moment, my cell rang. I answered and heard, 'Hey, Deb, the Spirit told me to call you. Are you all right?' Aaron saved me that day. No, I wasn’t going to harm myself, but I felt like the grief was about to swallow me whole, but then Aaron was there and reached out his hand. Aaron is my friend, my spiritual encourager and my pastor-at-large."
Aaron Johnson's Legacy
The book produced by the partnership of Aaron and Deb is a remarkable one. It has all of the makings for a classic tale which embodies an era of history unlike any other, but told from the heart of a deeply caring man who uplifted those around him, and insisted on showing both strength and forgiveness in the face of hatred. This is a book which would sit equally well in a pulpit, the hands of a Middle Schooler, and the library of congress. Says Deb:
"Personally, I think this book should be read for its historical value about a time in our country’s history that was filled with racial hatred, fear and unrest. It should be on a mandatory reading list for several areas of study including law, politics, and civil rights. It is also an inspirational book that teaches what a life of integrity, service, and ministry looks like and the moral fortitude it takes to become a person of character."
Since its release in 2010, Deb says she was unprepared for the reaction the book has received. Most astounding to her was how this old, black minister instantly become a hero to young adults. Deb tells this story:
"When we were given a tour of the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, we were walking and Aaron was talking and telling the tour guide stories at every display. Before we knew it, he was being followed and listened to by fifty or so students who were visiting the museum. Their instructors asked us if we’d make a presentation in the lobby to them. We did and the students responded with tears, respect and awe at the life lived by this man."
Despite the impact it has made on those who have encountered it, Deb is so far disappointed that the book has not received the attention it deserves by the public at-large.
"Aaron Johnson has lived the life of an honest man, a good man, and a man who stepped forward and tried to make a difference in the injustice he saw. He went against the tide to do it. His life was threatened. He was mocked and ridiculed for what he believed. But most importantly, he was fearless. His legacy is and will continue to be a tutorial in how one person can shine a light on darkness and defeat it. The power of one." But, Deb continues, "what history has taught us is that these lessons of humanity can be forgotten and must be taught over and over again."
Whatever the current or future impact Aaron Johnson's book may have, its impact on Deb's life has been lasting and profound:
"I got to march with Dr. King through Aaron. I got to stare down the KKK through Aaron. I walked through Death Row through Aaron. I got to feel what it was like to stare down hatred through Aaron. My part in this legacy is that I helped organize a good man’s story, coaxed him to dig and remember and to hold his hand when the retelling of it became painful. It is Aaron’s story. His life. It was my skill as a writer to capture that story for him and to tell it as truthfully and authentically as possible."