How exactly does one begin to attempt to tell a story of such an accomplished man? He spent thirty minutes sharing with me when I approached him on the sidewalk outside the front door of his beloved Farish Street Baptist Church a few months ago. Complete strangers – who does that? He took my card and eventually, following the busy holiday season, we were able to sit together in his office for an interview.
When he arrived, sauntering into the lobby outside his offices, he had a backpack over his shoulders and his hands full of books and papers. Last March 7 he made 80.
Born in Memphis, Hickman Morgan Johnson, was given his first name from his father – a hard worker who could not read or write, yet who told his son often, “I want you to do better than I.” His middle name came from his maternal great-grandfather, Reverend William Morgan.
Having met his wife atthe church, First Lady Gladys Marie Thomas Johnson effuses kindness, beauty and dedication. They celebrated fifty-five years of marriage last December. Johnson was quick to mention their five daughters, four of whom have doctorate degrees and one a MBA, and their eight grandchildren.
The first question can be off-putting to some – who are you, really? He smiled before referencing Saint Paul, “I try to be all things to all people. I believe I was called of God, and I have a sense of duty to give the best I can to God who has called me.” Who was the most impactful religious influencer in your life? “Oh, that’s easy, my mother. And I look like her too. My kids say if I had on a wig I’d look just like grandmother.” Deeper still, he shared that his mother had been childless for eight years before he arrived, and she prayed Hannah’s Prayer (1 Samuel 2) – promising God that, if she had a son, she would give the child back to God. Surely, she did just that.
He graduated from Tennessee State University with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1964, and in 1967 graduated from the Morehouse School of Religion-ITC with a Master of Divinity. He was the first African American to graduate from Mississippi College, receiving the Master of Arts in Religion in 1970, and Doctor of Ministry from Emory University in 1989.
He accepted the pastorate at Farish Street in August 1968. On Sundays when he walks in and up to the pulpit there is a purpose in his carriage not often witnessed, and when asked about it he shared that, “It is a sacred moment when I walk from my office to the pulpit – God grants me His spirit. I am not an entertainer. I try to give people hope. I speak as a prophet and a priest.”
When asked, with everything that we have going on in Jackson/Hinds County today, as a distinguished and long-time shepherd, what counsel do you offer us, he said, “I cannot ignore our issues. If we as people don’t change, we are in danger – we could lose our country and our souls.”
For a man who is no stranger to awards, in 2019 Representative Earle Banks (D-67) introduced House Concurrent Resolution 8 – the Legislature of the State of Mississippi bestowed upon him – “A Concurrent Resolution Commending And Congratulating Reverend Dr. Hickman M. Johnson On The Occasion Of His 50th Anniversary As Pastor Of Farish Street Baptist Church.”
Johnson has been deeply involved in the housing arena – providing safe and affordable housing for those in need has been another passion since the late sixties. Last October a ribbon-cutting happened for Hickman Heights in south Jackson, a four-story building with 100 rental units, developed with tax-exempt bonds using public and private financing. Just one building in a project of nine, spread across six Mississippi counties.
He has been the executive director of Mississippi Regional Housing Authority VI, since 2004. Region VI services the counties of Claiborne, Copiah, Hinds, Holmes, Madison, Rankin, Simpson, Warren and Yazoo. He continues to deliver for the needs of Mississippians.
Over the years, he has worn many titles: chaplain, director, dean, executive director, chairman, moderator, corresponding secretary and commissioner – but the one he reveres most is pastor.
The Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC); Mississippi Baptist Seminary; Jackson and Tupelo Housing Authorities; Seminole District, Andrew Jackson Council Boy Scouts; Jackson District Baptist Association; National Baptist Congress of Christian Education – are just a few of the seemingly countless organizations he has served.
When asked about ever thinking of leaving Jackson, he conceded that, “In the early 70s I had two offers to do so, but I elected to remain.” When asked why, he responded, “A sense of humility, to love and serve God.”
His list of accomplishments and service to community is staggering. When asked about it, he shared that, “It’s very challenging when you get spread too thinly, and so, in addition to my family, I focus mainly on three priorities: Farish Street Baptist Church, expanding affordable housing and the training of ministers.”
He provided me a copy of the book he authored in 2010, Farewell, My Friends – A Book of Eulogies and Tributes. Published by Trafford Publishing, it can be ordered from www.trafford.com or any online bookseller. At one point he brought me to the church secretary’s office to show the file drawers where the membership folders of deceased members are filed – persons he has eulogized and offered – “Few things in my life have more meaning to me.”
His voice and delivery, in conversation yes, but especially from the pulpit, it somehow makes me think of mighty waters. On Sundays there is a gathering thunder about it. Precision, depth, varying volume and wrapped in the unmistakable love of a humble shepherd.
Farish Street Baptist Church is located within the Farish Street Historic District, 619 North Farish Street, Jackson, MS.
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