Descending from a line of sharecroppers since Reconstruction, Isaiah Johnson was born at home on October 5, 1959. Or, at least that’s what his mother told the Alabama Department of Public Health. Isaiah was Eileen’s eighth surviving child, one of thirteen. The Johnsons lived in an isolated wooden shack, down an unnamed red clay lane jutting off a county road outside of McCrooter. The lane was puddled with rust-colored potholes and muddied by thunderstorms from the Gulf, which was 70 miles southward. The shack’s tin roof was shaded by an ancient moss-draped live oak. It had a front porch, three bedrooms and a kitchen with a wood-burning stove. Chickens ran freely, and a fenced-in garden grew tomatoes, green beans and watermelons in the summer. There was no plumbing, so water was drawn from a tin rain barrel out back by the outhouse. The shack was on the grid, but cut off. Four unused light bulbs – one in each room – hung from wires draping through the ceiling. The Johnsons hadn’t paid their bill to the Alabama Power Company since the corn farm was sold. Hosea, Eileen’s husband, had sharecropped on a nearby farm, growing okra and corn until 1964, when the landowner sold the corn land to a farmer who replaced labor with machines. Save for occasional odd jobs and okra farming, Hosea had been underemployed ever since. During idle times, Hosea would catfish in the Conecuh River or in a nearby pond, bringing home supper.
Isaiah was a sickly child. His belly was distended from malnutrition, his face and body had sores, and he had two rat bites. At school, he was despondent and dull, typical of hungry children. And yet, he had innocent and observant eyes that shined through his dreariness, for those who had the empathy to notice. His vulnerable air suggested a favored child of God. Along with his older siblings, Isaiah attended a public school that, despite federal attempts at integration, was all black and poorly funded. Hot lunches cost 25 cents, but his brothers and sisters rarely had lunch money. However, the older siblings sometimes ate one egg and some rice for breakfast, and others just had rice. They had a chicken on some Sundays, one for thirteen kids plus Eileen and Hosea.
On Isaiah’s eighth birthday – he didn’t know it was his birthday – two brand new, black Buick Electras sped by the Johnson kids walking down the county road from school. One car pulled off on the shoulder and then the other. The children watched curiously. An important looking white man with a shock of red hair, sporting a grey suit and a dark tie, jumped out of the first Buick and ran toward the children. As he approached, he locked eyes with Isaiah, looking at him like a father toward a favorite child. He asked the kids, “Where do you all live?” The older boys stared suspiciously. But Isaiah wordlessly pointed up the road and to the left. “Come with us. We’ll take you home,” said the man. Though skeptical at first, the kids had never been in a Buick before. So they piled into the cars, amazed at the lush interiors, smooth leather seats, sleek dashboards and long hoods. The cars smelled factory fresh and rode like magic carpets over whipped cream. The kids smiled. A minute later, they turned left down the muddy lane and splattered through the red puddles, pulling up in front of the shack.
The gentleman was a New Jersey Senator, Joseph O’Brien, who planned on announcing his candidacy for the 1968 presidential primaries in December. Officially, his Alabama visit was Senate business. He was on the Finance Committee, and he, some aids and a journalist were examining poverty issues in the Southeast. Looking ahead, he knew that the expedition would make for a few good photo ops and footage for the upcoming primaries.
As the Buicks parked, Eileen came out with her apron on, nursing a baby. Her eyes widened frightfully, watching her kids jump out of the fancy cars, followed by the suited men. The first man to come out approached her. He had wavy red hair parted to the side, a boyish yet aging reddish face and green eyes behind black horn-rimmed glasses. He greeted Eileen confidently: “How do you do? I’m Senator O’Brien.” He didn’t talk like Alabama white men. She stared at him, stoically. The children – even the teenagers – ran to their mother and stood around her closely, as if to either protect her or be protected by her. They all wordlessly watched the Senator. “I’m running for President,” he said, “and you’re the first to know it.” Silence. “Who is this little man?” he said gesturing toward Isaiah. “Tell the man ya’ name,” commanded Eileen. “Isaiah,” he said in a mousy and almost inaudible voice. The Senator noticed the boy’s distended stomach poking out under his t-shirt and the sores and rat bites on his left arm and left cheek. “What did you learn in school today?” Isaiah said nothing. “Tell da’ man what you learn,” said Eileen. Still, he didn’t respond. “What did you have for lunch today?” the Senator asked. Isaiah’s deep brown eyes gleamed through his emotionless face. “Did you eat at school?” “No sir, he didn’t,” said his teenage brother, “None of us ate at school today. We ain’t got no lunch money.” Eileen chimed in: “We ain’t had no money since they sold the corn farm.” “Do you get food stamps?” asked the Senator. “Cain’t ‘ford ‘em. Aint got no money for food stamps,” she said. “Y’all go back in the house,” Eileen yelled to the kids, “Git back in right now!” And all went in except Isaiah, fiercely clinging to his mother’s leg.
The Senator eyed the chickens. “Do you get food from those chickens?” he asked. “We get some,” she replied. “Who worked the farm?” he asked. “Ma’ husban’ Hosea.” “Does he work now?” “He still works on the okra farm, but there ‘aint much money in that. It pays fo’ some medicine and food. Sometimes it buys lunch money,” she said. “Where’s he now?” asked the Senator. “Don’t know – fishin’ I suppose. He brings catfish from the river when he get lucky.” The Senator pulled out a $20 bill, gave it to Eileen and said, “I’ll do what I can to help you.” He reached out his hand to Isaiah. “Shake the man’s hand,” she said. Isaiah limply extended his arm and shook the Senator’s hand. “Isaiah, do you want to eat an early supper with us? We’re going to Carter’s Diner up the road. We’ll take you back home after supper,” said the Senator. “No sir,” said Eileen, “they don’t want no black people in there.” The Senator was silent for a second. “They will this afternoon,” he said. He took Isaiah’s hand and led him to the car. O’Brien looked back at Eileen, “If you don’t mind?” She eyed the Senator disapprovingly but let her boy go.
When the entourage entered Carter’s, everyone stared silently. A few recognized the Senator, as he had been in the news lately. But all eyes were on Isaiah. It was the first time a black person dined there. A few customers left without paying or finishing their meals. The politicos tried to humor the situation, but they felt glances of disapproval. A few customers were secretly happy that times were changing. Isaiah had a roast beef sandwich and ate quietly. The waitress was kind and gave him a slice of pumpkin pie. But the manager kept his distance, nervously peeking through the diamond-shaped window on the kitchen door. When they finished, the Senator left an extra $20 on the table to cover the cost of unpaid checks. Before dropping off Isaiah, he bought canned foods at a grocery store for the Johnsons.
The Senator’s entourage returned to Pensacola that night, as they had a flight to Washington the next day. The following morning, during a late breakfast in the airport, one of O’Brien’s aids picked up the Pensacola News Journal, which ran a story about a brick being thrown through the window of Carter’s Diner near McCrooter, Alabama, “after Senator Joseph O’Brien from New Jersey and his aides dined with a black boy at around 4:00 PM yesterday.” O’Brien read the story without comment.
The 46-year-old father of five, alumnus of Yale Law School, successful attorney, two-term Senator, rising star on the Finance Committee and forthcoming candidate for President seemed apathetic on the flight home. He said not a word to his aids or the journalist about politics or strategy. He ordered a scotch and cloud-gazed all the way to Washington. After landing, he didn’t return to the Hill. He went home to McLean and sat at the kitchen table in the alcove of a bay window. Above the window hung an antique print, in hues of dark blue, of Jesus weeping over moonlit Jerusalem. Years ago, the print hung in his grandmother’s dining room in Weehawken. He sat beneath the picture in deep thought, until his 15-year-old son, Connor, came home from school. “What are you doing here, dad?” Connor put two hot dogs in the toaster oven. “Do you know what you have, son?” “What?” replied Connor. “Do you know what you have?” “What do you mean? Have what?” asked Connor. Dad got up and put the News Journal on the counter, turned to the story. Connor read it and looked up at his dad. “The boy’s name is Isaiah,” said dad, “He has two rat bites, sores and a stomach bulging from malnutrition. His eyes never left me. I thought to myself, ‘This world’s doing a job on you, my boy, and always will.’ So I took him to dinner. Some people left when we sat down. The manager just stared at us, but the waitress was nice.” Connor took the hot dogs out of the oven and said, “It’ll be in the Post tomorrow, I bet.” “I wish I had him here now…You don’t know what you have, son. And neither do I.” His wife came in with the other kids and sacks of groceries. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “I was here yesterday,” he said pointing to the News Journal story. “His name is Isaiah.” She read it and looked up at her husband, reflectively. He looked grave. “Margaret,” he asked, “if I became the most powerful man in the world, what could I do?”