DePaul-connected Young Lords Organization honors fallen comrades

The Young Lords Organization and Grand Valley State University’s Kutsche Office of Local History held a memorial service in Lincoln Park “to honor the lives and work” of Rev. Bruce W. Johnson, Jr. and his wife, Eugenia Ransier Johnson, Sept. 23.  The couple was found murdered in their Lincoln Park home Sept. 30, 1969, in a case that remains unsolved.  Bruce Johnson was the pastor at Armitage Avenue United Methodist Church, or the People’s Church, as it was known when it housed the Young Lords and their various community programs in the late 1960s.

The memorial service at Lincoln Park’s Church of the Three Crosses featured reflections from an array of individuals connected to the Johnsons’ legacy, including DePaul’s own Jacqueline Lazu, Associate Professor and Director of the Community Service Studies Program.  Rev. Martin Deppe, a retired Methodist pastor who was a friend of Johnson’s, echoed the liturgy of the initial memorial service that took place nearly 44 years earlier: “This week, middle class and poor, Latin, Black and Anglo gathered together to be angry and to grieve.”  Indeed, a diverse crowd was on hand at the event – Young Lords, members of the United Methodist Church and students from Grand Valley State University alike sat side by side in remembrance.

The service also coincided with the 45th anniversary of the founding of the Young Lords Organization, and was followed by a walking tour of sites in Lincoln Park that hosted important moments in the movement’s history. The same citizens and activists who had helped shape the organization led the large crowd through the streets of a drastically different Lincoln Park than the one they had known, illuminating each stop on the tour through a bullhorn all the while.

After visiting the scenes of the Young Lords’ conspicuous acts of protest and community organization, the group gathered around the now demolished People’s Church, holding a candlelight vigil and prayer in memory of the late couple, as well as the church that symbolized their presence and struggle in Lincoln Park. “That’s why we came to Chicago … out of respect for that,” said Young Lords founder, Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez.  “We don’t want (Johnson’s) memory to be forgotten, or for his death to be unsolved or in vain.”

“A high risk job”

Born in Aurora, Ill. in 1938, Rev. Bruce Johnson met his wife Eugenia while both were attending Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston.  They married in 1962 and had three sons, Brian, Kevin and Perry.  By 1964, Bruce was serving a predominantly Latino congregation in the city’s Humboldt Park neighborhood and was also involved with the Renewal Caucus of the United Methodist Church. “A group of mostly young pastors in the inner city who met every month to support each other,” as Rev. Deppe said.  “We were in difficult situations with very minimal salaries, and we were in a sense thrown out on our own … that Renewal Caucus is where we got our wounds wrapped up.”

Through their work together, Deppe and Johnson developed a good friendship.  “Bruce was kind of a youthful, childlike, cherubic face,” he said. “Even though he had this outward joviality, he still had a reserve and a privacy that was there, as well as this deep intellect and a passion for justice, so he was not a simple person.”  Deppe said that Eugenia shared Bruce’s private nature, but she was similarly noted for her activism and advocacy, particularly on behalf of special needs children.  The couple was “also highly committed to the [civil rights] movement, and they were very much valued by those who were working with them.  They were beloved,” Jacqueline Lazu said. 

In 1968, the Johnsons moved to Lincoln Park, where Bruce became pastor of the Armitage Avenue United Methodist Church.  At that time, Johnson’s congregation consisted primarily of conservative Cuban exiles, who had fled their homeland after the 1959 overthrow of Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship.  He nevertheless began to interact with the Young Lords, a predominantly Puerto Rican group often associated with communist ideals. He even taught several of them Latin American history, according to Jose Jimenez.  Deppe also recalled that Johnson and the group had “a kind of mutual desire to affect each other…he claimed that he was going to make Christians out of them, and they were going to make a Young Lord out of him.”  However, Jimenez noted that Johnson still “didn’t push religion on us…he taught it in his way, naturally.”

When the group began talks with his congregation to open up community programs in the church, Johnson supported their proposal.  After negotiations fell through and the Young Lords staged a takeover of the church, it was Johnson who singlehandedly prevented bloodshed by telling the police that the organization’s members had entered the building with his permission.

In the following months, Johnson’s church became the People’s Church, and housed a free daycare center, health clinic and breakfast program.  Deppe recalled that the Renewal Caucus gave Johnson “all the support we could,” but his affiliation with the Young Lords spawned antagonism that became unmanageable.  According to Jimenez, Johnson was eventually fined $200 a day by the city due to the group’s presence in the church.  A contemporary report in Life Magazine noted that Johnson’s involvement with the organization “tore a scab from the community sore and set off an outpouring of ancient hate which the Lords inherited as the price of their newly seized power…whether the bishop understands it or not, that’s the recipe for a high-risk job around Armitage Avenue.”

“A Terrible Scene”

In the early morning of September 29-30,1969, Bruce and Eugenia Johnson were murdered in their home.  Bruce suffered 14 stab wounds to the abdomen and chest, while Eugenia was stabbed 19 times and had her skull crushed.  Their four-year-old son Brian stood at the front steps of the apartment the next morning as a mail carrier approached, “his bare feet red with his parent’s blood,” according to Life Magazine. 

News of the grisly murders quickly spread amongst the members of both the United Methodist Church and the Young Lords.  “Some of the others were going to play racquetball with him that morning, and he didn’t show up,” recalled Deppe.  “[They] went to the apartment, and got there just about the time the police did.  I went there later with my wife…it was a terrible scene.”

Jose Jimenez was in solitary confinement at Cook County Jail at the time of the murders.  ” The warden himself actually had me come to his room at Cook County Jail and asked me if I wanted a beer.  I said, ‘of course.’  He put on the TV…and that’s when I saw it on the news.”  About an hour later, after homicide detectives visited him, Jimenez was bonded out of the jail by Bishop Thomas Pryor of the United Methodist Church, and gave part of the eulogy at the later memorial service for the Johnsons. 

Ultimately, the police investigation into the murders never identified a single suspect.  “It’s shrouded in suspicion and shrouded in mystery…there were a lot of opportunities for this to be a continued investigation, but it was never solved,” said Lazu.  Speculation as to who may have been responsible for the murders has pointed in a number of directions over the years, but with no concrete evidence against accused parties.

“An unknown to this day”

Johnson and the Young Lords certainly raised the ire of several individuals and institutions that may have had a vested interest in the discontinuation of their work.  Jimenez pointed to several even within the confines of Lincoln Park.  There was 43rd Ward Alderman George Barr McCutcheon, who Jimenez alleged had underlings dressing as transients and digging through the garbage cans outside the People’s Church.  The Young Lords had previous run-ins with McCutcheon, and even once stormed a press conference to remind the media on hand of his 1968 arrest in the company of a prostitute.

According to Jimenez, the local Italian Mafia was also incensed by the Young Lords’ challenges to their operation.  They ran an extortion and numbers racket out of the Bissell Real Estate Office, which the Young Lords picketed after a neighborhood restaurant owner was threatened with a submachine gun for being late on his rent.  The incident itself descended into confusion and threats of violence, but the ensuing media coverage by the Latin American Defense Organization (LADO) only deepened the animosity between the two groups. 

“That local Mafia group was angry at us and Rev. Bruce Johnson because they felt that he was leading us, they couldn’t believe that we did it ourselves,” Jimenez said.  Even Johnson’s former Cuban congregation had largely abandoned the church, likely taking offense to the Young Lords’ rhetoric and imagery, which included references to Cuban revolutionary figure Che Guevara, among others.  “It could have been a former parishioner who was furious over the direction of the church with the Young Lords,” said Deppe.  “I don’t know.  I do not want to speculate.  It’s an unknown to this day.”

A newspaper distributed by the Young Lords Organization in October, 1969 included the assertion that “the brutal murder of Bruce and Eugenia Johnson is meant as a warning to all people fighting for their just rights…these murders show to what vicious lengths the ruling class will go to prevent the growth of our just struggle.” There have been similar implications of involvement on the part of establishment forces since- Jimenez noted the fact that the Johnsons’ murder occurred a mere three months prior to the killing of deputy chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party (BPP) Fred Hampton by combined forces of the State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO), CPD, and FBI. 

“Of course the establishment says that it was just some Young Lord that got [angry] with him because he wasn’t radical enough or something,” Deppe said.  “We can’t prove that it was someone from the establishment, but it was still a strategic assassination…they just, they wiped us out.  The forces of power were able to just defeat us, and how they were related to the assassination, we don’t know.

“A Historical Legacy”

In Deppe’s reflection at the September 23 memorial service, he invoked the words of Bishop Thomas Pryor: “if these murders were an “outgrowth” of the Johnson’s ministry, then ‘this couple must be numbered among those who laid down their lives for others in the name of Christ.”  Also involved with the civil rights movement, even working directly with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesse Jackson, Deppe shared a similar approach and experience with Johnson in his work on the South Side of Chicago.  “A lot of us had difficult times in the inner city in the 60s, that was a very tumultuous time,” he said.  “I had gangs to deal with in my church on 87th Street, which was a boundary between the Englewood Disciples and the Woodlawn Rangers.  We still have the names Disciples and P-Stone Rangers, they’re outgrowths of those gangs way back…I see this today with the continuing shootings, it’s just incredible how it goes on and on in this city.”

Johnson “wanted to get rid of gang violence, like many people today,” said Jimenez.  “He wanted to stop substance abuse…he wanted to serve the poor of Lincoln Park, and he saw an opportunity through the Young Lords to do that.”  Jimenez says he’ll always remember Johnson as a kind and committed man, who “believed even more in what we believed than we did…you can’t find a better person than someone who is honest and true to his beliefs, and respectful of human beings.”

Following the candlelight vigil at the site of the People’s Church, the recent memorial service concluded with a stop at DePaul’s School of Music Building, formerly the Stone-Academic Administration Building of the McCormick Theological Seminary, which the Young Lords occupied in 1969.  Jacqueline Lazu, who has contributed extensively to the Young Lords Collection at DePaul’s Special Collections & Archives since coming to the University 13 years ago, is now in the process of moving out of her office at nearby McGaw Hall as the scheduled renovation of both buildings draws nearer.  Lazu, who has a background in theatre, was even inspired to write the 2007 play “The Block-El Bloque, A Young Lords Story,” largely by her proximity to this piece of the movement’s history.  “I’m looking forward to the move to some degree…but I think about it all the time, especially because so much of the heart and soul of how I developed the play had to do with being here, just the realization that not only are the archives here, but I am actually here in the midst of this historical legacy.”

Lazu pointed to the now demolished People’s Church as the “only other space that really had that symbolic type of power…after that, we [at DePaul] can claim to have, to some degree, ownership over this major historical archive for a community that you no longer get to see…it would be nice if we were able to recognize that in one way or another.”