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Justice, Anger, Laughter and Racism: A conversation with John Booth, Part 1

From a childhood marked by racism and anger, John Booth found his path to change and activism.
Tom Stafford
From a childhood marked by racism and anger, John Booth found his path to change and activism.

Racism causes hurt, hurt causes anger. And after a childhood in which he fought racism with anger, heart and fists, John Booth landed a punch that could have sent him to prison. WYSO reporter Tom Stafford says the poet, musician and spoken word artist came to control his anger and continue his family’s generations-long fight against racism. This is part one of a two-part story: Justice, Anger, Laughter and Racism – A Conversation with John Booth.
Tom Stafford: John Booth is 67 now and lives in Yellow Springs. But this story starts in the Champaign County village of Mechanicsburg in the summer of 1960.

John Booth: We moved there right before kindergarten, that’s when my parents divorced. So, I went there from kindergarten through high school.

Stafford: It’s in those years he, like many African American children, was given a thorough schooling in racism. Instruction was often conducted out of the classroom.

Booth: I can remember things like walking home with my white friends, and when we’d get close to their house, I’d have to get on the other side of the street so they wouldn't get whipped by their parents for hanging out with me.

Stafford: Hitting became one of his regular extra-curricular activities, and not just on the baseball field.

Booth: Growing up I used to fight a lot, you know, how kids fist fight. And ninety-eight percent of the time it was because someone called me a racial name. I wasn't a very big kid, but I had a heart.

Stafford: And fists with which he taught a series of schoolmates some lessons.

Booth: So, it wasn't long before people learned, you know, don't call him that. … you can call other kids, don’t call him. They knew, I don't care how big you were, I was going to try to go upside your head.

Stafford: In junior high, he grew accustomed to more offensive lines, most memorably on the football field.

Booth: A lot of times I was one of the few black kids on the team. And I would get called the N-word…and all this type of stuff.

Stafford: Players didn’t get flagged for what now would be considered very personal fouls. He faced the most hostility in all- or mostly white communities where his mere presence was considered an encroachment.

John Booth playing his guitar while sitting behind an assortment of guitar pedals.
Tom Stafford
John Booth's guitar, a symbol of his transformative journey, serves as a source of inspiration and healing in the face of racism and anger.

Booth: As a high school football player, two towns in particular, I always had trouble when I'd go to walk the field -- you know, before the game, you’d check out the field conditions. The security guard at the gate would grab me and say “Not you, boy, there ain't no colored boys in Mechanicsburg.” So, I'd have to call the coach, and coach would, “Hey man, he’s on the team.”

Stafford: After commencement ceremonies at Mechanicsburg High School, Booth moved on to Wilmington, where his education in racism was more nuanced.

Booth: When I was in college, some of my peers were afraid of me because they said that for a Black man, I was too free. And there's no such thing as too free. You know, you don't have to ask for what's yours. I already have rights. I'm just going to exercise them.

Stafford: During a break from college, he learned a different kind of lesson at an institution within easy driving distance. Locals in that day called it the London Prison Farm.

Booth: I left college for a short while to wait for some classes I needed to graduate. So, I spent some time working as a prison guard. And I saw people with felonies for not taking any crap. And I was, so okay, that anger didn't work for you.

Stafford: He took the lesson to heart because he realized he easily could have been on the other side of the bars. Just before starting the job,

Booth: I got into a fight where I was threatened with a felony.

Stafford: Even though it had seemed to him a clearly justified fight – one in which he fought on behalf of a Black friend being taken advantage of – his punch knocked an acquaintance out cold and charges could have been pressed. When that reality took hold, he said,

Booth: I became afraid of my anger, and I promised myself I would never let anyone get me angry enough to hit them again. And that’s been, hmm, at least 45, almost 50 years.

Stafford: The steps he took to accomplish that while still meeting racism head-on – and encouraging his family to do the same – is the subject of Part 2 of Justice, Anger, Laughter and Racism – A Conversation with John Booth. In Yellow Springs for WYSO, I’m Tom Stafford.

Part 2 of of Tom Stafford’s Conversation with John Booth, will air tomorrow at the same time here on WYSO. Booth’s family story also inspired a new play from Mad River Theater Works, Freedom Flight. WYSO will air that play at 7 p.m. Friday.