The Houston Trial Lawyers Foundation threw its second annual First Amendment Awards banquet the other night at the Houstonian. It was one of those self-congratulatory affairs that always makes me a little uneasy -- you know, a lot of plaintiff's lawyers and journalists gathered in one room, wining and dining and yukking it up. If Jon Matthews had stumbled on the scene, I'm sure it would have confirmed his worst fears about the decline of the West.
But the wine was plentiful and the food delicious -- I shoveled down all I could stand -- and the speaker, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the anti-Klan group out of Alabama, was inspiring, even if he went on for too long. Best of all, some deserving journalists, including Michael Berryhill of the Press, were gifted with $1,000 awards for demonstrating excellence in their craft.
George "Bud" Johnson wasn't there, even though he's the one journalist in Houston who's consistently exercised to the fullest his freedoms as guaranteed by the First Amendment, which, in addition to giving you the right to write stories designed to win journalism prizes, supposedly gives you the right to try to tell the truth as you see it, no matter who you make mad, as well as the right to risk making an ass of yourself in doing so.
It's a safe bet that perhaps outside of the few black people in attendance -- and that's a big "perhaps" -- not many people at the Houstonian knew of Bud Johnson. Even if they had, there's not much that Bud Johnson could do -- or would do -- for them, although if he'd been invited, I'm sure he would have been glad to show up and drink the white man's liquor, that is, if he weren't on probation for DWI, and I would assume he could always use a thousand bucks, although he professes not to care at all about money.
Up until late August, Johnson was the managing editor of Forward Times, the "Widest Circulated Black Owned Independent Newspaper in The South." Three times a month he wrote a column for the weekly paper called Bud's EyeView, a journey down the turbulent rapids of the mind of Bud Johnson. Every fourth week, he wrote "This Bud's For You," a social-notes column on the comings and goings of the many, many people in black Houston whose acquaintance he had made over the years. He was also responsible for a police-blotter column called "It Was Like This," which captured the street-level ugliness and futility of crime like nothing else you'll read in Houston.
I'd always pick up the Forward Times when I was in the proximity of a copy, mostly to read Bud Johnson's stuff. I usually found it to be funny and raw and uncompromising -- about as far from the sphincteral character of most Houston journalism as you can get. Johnson is a talented wordsmith with strongly held opinions, only some of them about Bud Johnson, and he writes like a man who's trying to avoid arguing with himself but can't help wading into it. His columns remind me of the saying that the novelist and essayist Ishmael Reed used for the title of one of his books: Writin' Is Fightin'.
For Johnson, that's not just some literary conceit. A couple of years ago, after the Press had named him the city's best newspaper columnist in our "Best of Houston" issue, Johnson wrote in his next column that the honor was nice but he certainly didn't need the white media to validate his talent. He also reported that some of his friends had bought him a few rounds to celebrate, and on his way home, he had been stopped by a cop, one thing had led to another, and as a result the city's best newspaper columnist had to spend the night in jail. The episode left him somewhat suspicious -- after all, he'd written some bad things about the mayor around that time, and the cop, who was white, called him "Bud," even though there is no mention of "Bud" anywhere on George S. Johnson's driver's license.
Maybe the cop had heard of him, or maybe Bud had good reason to be paranoid, or maybe both. Back in the mid-'80s, Forward Times went on a tear on behalf of Shelton Morris, a black firefighter who, the paper insisted, had been screwed out of his job as the Houston Fire Department's public information liaison to the African-American community. Forward Times blamed Bill Paradoski, a former TV newsman who was HFD's public information officer. One week Forward Times ran a full-page editorial in which Paradoski was described as a "politically hired media hack who only wants to swill from the public trough at our expense," as well as a stock PR photo of Paradoski and Morris's replacement accompanied by the caption "The Devil and His Advocate????" The following week, Bud called Paradoski a "former Channel 13 prima donna" in Bud's EyeView.
Paradoski found those characterizations so objectionable that he sued Bud and Forward Times for $4 million. That might seem funny in retrospect, but for a small, just-getting-by paper like Forward Times, a $4 million libel suit was nothing to laugh about. Fortunately, Bruce Griffiths, who was then with the ACLU, defended the paper, and Paradoski later withdrew his suit "upon reaching an amicable resolution" with the paper.
I have no idea whether Bud was right or wrong about Paradoski, but it's a pretty sorry situation when a newspaper can't call a fire department flack a "devil" without fear of a lawsuit.
Occasionally, what Bud Johnson has written has struck me as just wrong or wrong-headed, but then how could I ever see things the way Bud Johnson does? I'm a middle-aged white man who's had it easy all my life, and Johnson is a 63-year-old black man, a survivor of two bouts with cancer and 40 or so (by his count) trips to jail who will tell you, casually and while on his way to some larger point, that one of his two sons is a "crackhead" recently out of the penitentiary.
He'll also let you know that the probation he's currently on runs for eight years, and follow up that autobiographical note with perhaps the most important thing that Bud Johnson thinks that other people think about him: "I talk a lot of shit, and I'm hard to get along with."
It's beyond my meager talent to convey the way Bud Johnson writes, although it's a close approximation of the way he talks: a sort of street-corner stream-of-consciousness delivered in a low, raspy voice (one of the cancers was in his throat) that can turn very loud and emphatic when he's exercised.
"This is black journalism," Johnson says of his writing. "And I'm more or less by my lonesome on this, but it's something I try to get over to all my colleagues and peers: Since we are a different people and have a different way of communicating, we should reflect that."
Johnson is working in a solid American tradition -- he's an old-fashioned, unreconstructed race man, a self-proclaimed "Ol' African Warrior," part Marcus Garvey and part Red Foxx. Call him on the phone, and his answering machine will inform you that you've reached the "Nerve Center of Bud Johnson, Incorporated" and if you have any worthwhile ideas or information to impart, then you can leave them with him at the tone.
Naturally, he doesn't have much respect for the white media and the advertisers who won't purchase space in black papers, nor does he find much to recommend about the Forward Times's competitors in the black press, which he believes are nothing more than a pale reflection of the dominant media. He finds many black organizations to be similarly lacking: "You've got some people in our community who, when they want to talk about getting their oppressor off their back, the first thing they do is call the oppressor's media to come to their press conference ... and the black media are just supposed to somehow find out about it by themselves ....
"That's the reason I'm deified in Houston, because I talk this kind of talk," Johnson adds, "at happy hour, or anywhere else."
Since late August, however, the opinions of Bud Johnson have been mostly confined to the Nerve Center of Bud Johnson up on Lonallen Street and the column he continues to write for Citizens' News, a smaller community paper that circulates mostly in Acres Homes and other black neighborhoods in the north end of town. As Johnson tells it, he had a "little spat" with Forward Times publisher Lenora Carter, which, in his version (I couldn't raise Mrs. Carter on the phone to hear her side of it), grew out of his exercise of one of his strongly held opinions. The disagreement got Johnson to thinking that, since he was 63 and the only person available to look after his 84-year-old father, maybe it was time to "retire" from Forward Times.
The paper isn't the same without him. Lloyd Wells, a longtime fixture on the Houston sporting scene who has his own column in Forward Times, has urged Johnson to "eat his pride" and come home to the weekly. Wells also addressed the difficulty of trying to get along with Bud Johnson:
"I well remember," wrote Wells, "it was I who staged a 'BUD JOHNSON DAY' several years ago and had a limo and most of the high profile black people over at Club Was to honor him for his longtime service to the community ... even though BUD tried to put me down every chance he got ...."
When Johnson started out as a stringer covering sports events for Forward Times 36 years ago, about the only time a local black person was mentioned in the city's dailies was when that person was accused of a crime, and the mention usually came with the identification of the alleged perpetrator as a "Negro." Back then, the black press served a crucial dual function here and in other cities with large and thriving African-American communities: to inform and uplift the race. The names of some of the papers that survive to this day reflect the role as it was carved out in strictly segregated Houston: The Informer ... The Defender ... Forward Times ....
Forward Times was founded in 1960 by Julius Carter, who had worked at the Informer previously and had a cigarette machine business. Then, as today, there were two kinds of black papers: the more mannered type, which depended on syndicated national stories of interest to African-Americans and news of local social and church events, which were wholly ignored by the white press, and the harder-edge type, which relied on crime stories, humor and gossip and sometimes took black leaders and community figures to task.
Johnson takes credit for Forward Times's being in the latter category.
"Forward Times originally didn't have crime stories; it was a pictorial, with all positive stuff about the community," he recalls. By contrast, "The Informer was a butt-kicker, with big, red screaming headlines."
"By the second year we were struggling," Bud says of the early Forward Times, "so I suggested we get some crime in there." There was one particular story that proved the wisdom of that move, a classically tawdry tale of a businessman who hired someone who hired someone else to do away with the businessman's wife.
"This white accountant was married to some old socialite, and he wanted her dead so he could romance this beautiful, young, um ... mulatto, at his leisure," Johnson recalls. "This case was bigger than the Icebox Killings."
The paper sold out, and to this day is the only edition not available in the paper's archives, Bud says. Soon he was writing what he calls "The Black Page," a full page devoted to crime tales. "It was all kind of humorous: You know, we'd have something about the 98-pound prostitute who pulled off her shoe and whipped up on her 200-pound pimp on the corner of Dowling and Elgin ...." Some readers mistook the title of the feature as referring to black criminals, but Johnson, who's always looked for ways to grab readers' attention, explains that the page had white type on a black background, thus the title.
Johnson ended his first association at Forward Times after four years, setting a pattern that continued until his departure this summer.
"I fall out with everybody," is the way he explains it.
He returned for another stint as stringer in the mid-'70s, after Julius Carter died, left again, then returned again in the early '80s. By the mid-'80s, he had ended up as managing editor, a job he says he reluctantly undertook, and had begun to branch out from sports and crime reporting into wide-ranging commentary.
He had a brief falling out with the paper in 1989, when Forward Times writer Ed Wendt ("He's white, and he's crazy, too," is the way Johnson describes Wendt, not without affection) published an editorial supporting former mayor Fred Hofheinz, who was attempting a comeback against Mayor Kathy Whitmire. Johnson says the editorial violated Forward Times's no-endorsement policy, so he went on Michael Harris's Person to Person show on KCOH-AM to disavow any connection with the unsigned piece. As usual, one thing led to another, "and I was gone again," Johnson says.
That absence lasted only a month before Johnson again returned to Forward Times, where he's labored since for the princely sum of $250 a week. (Johnson didn't do it for the money -- he always had some "outside hustle" going to supplement his income from writing, he says.)
"This," Johnson says of his last stint at Forward Times, "was the longest I ever worked for anybody."
Johnson's grandfather was a preacher, "so I was very verbose and literate," he says, and people on both sides of his family were crazy -- in the clinical sense -- so it was probably natural he'd become a writer.
He started out sweeping floors at the Acres Homes Reporter in 1953, when he was just out of Carver High. "After I graduated, I decided I was gonna be a journalist. I went out and offered my services, just to be around a newspaper. There were no journalism classes in our high schools, and it was totally unheard-of back then for a black kid to want to be a journalist."
Johnson got into journalism for the same reason everybody else does -- he fancied himself "an intellectual butt-kicker" and wanted to do battle "against lies, deceit and injustice." And he believes he was able to hold fast to that dream because he's never been willing to make the compromises that most of the rest of us, no matter what our race or line of work, must make to get along.
"I'm not in tune with the rest of society, because I don't believe in money," Johnson says. "I'm untouchable. I don't need nobody or nothing [this includes a wife, although he was once married 12 years]. I don't want to go to their parties ...."
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So maybe that's why you can find Bud Johnson at home these days in Acres Homes, in his immaculately kept Nerve Center with his word processor and walls full of the various awards and commendations, mostly from black media organizations and community associations, he's gotten over the years. Bud also has a TV back in his Inner Sanctum, but it's an older model with rabbit ears, and he says he only keeps it around to watch the news. "TV," he observes, "will rob you of your mind."
Had he been born a couple of decades later, Bud probably would have been at the Houstonian for the First Amendment awards banquet; maybe he would have been one of the honorees. Things have changed since he started sweeping floors at the Acres Homes Reporter, although, as Bud Johnson would probably tell you, many of the changes have been for the better, but some have been for the worse. If he had come along in the next generation, he might have wound up working full-time at the Chronicle or Post. Then again, with his attitude, it's unlikely he'd still be working there. And it's all moot conjecture, anyway, because Bud Johnson is a product of a specific place in time -- a place where a black person couldn't pee in the same public toilet as a white person, in a time before TV had robbed us all of our minds.
In other words, if he'd come along later, he wouldn't have been Bud Johnson.
Bud says he recently got a letter from one of those community sections of the Chronicle. He thinks someone must have noticed his work in Citizens' News, and, obviously not knowing who Bud Johnson is (genius does indeed go unrecognized in its time), sent along a form he could fill out if he wanted to do some stringing for the section. Bud says he sent it back with this no-thanks: "I don't work for white people."
I have no idea if it really was like that, but I do know that he laughed when he said he didn't work for white people. For Bud Johnson, the joy has always been in telling it.