ONU alumni Jerry Johnson next to MLK statue

The nation celebrates its great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the third Monday of January.

Ohio Northern University also commemorates Jan. 11, 1968, the day when Dr. King visited ONU’s campus and delivered “The Hammer of Justice” speech.

ONU alumni and Lima residents Jerry Johnson, BSEd ’71, JD ’75 and Barb (Ahl) Johnson, BSEd ’70, witnessed this historic event as undergraduates, and 56 years later, they remain moved by their memories of Dr. King’s dynamic presence and powerful message of equality and nonviolence.

Photo of Barb Johnson when she was a studentBoth sat a few rows back from the stage in Taft Memorial Gymnasium. They remember the air being charged with excitement as the packed crowd eagerly awaited Dr. King’s arrival.

Barb handed out programs and ushered people to their seats. A strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement, she was thrilled Dr. King agreed to journey to Ada at the request of his friend and former theology school classmate, Dr. James Udy, who was ONU’s chaplain at the time.

“I realized the significance of Dr. King’s visit during this turbulent period of racial unrest in our nation,” she said. “I think the crowd in Taft was eager to hear him speak.”

Jerry noted, however, that many ONU students were either ambivalent, or unhappy, about his visit. “There wasn’t 100 percent acceptance of him coming to ONU, and many students in my dorm decided not to go,” he recalled.

Having grown up on a farm in Mercer County, Jerry had little knowledge of the struggles facing the Black community. At the last minute, he decided to attend Dr. King’s address, and the experience opened his eyes to a different perspective and changed him on a profound level.

Photo of Jerry Johnson when he was a student“He was an outstanding person and speaker,” said Jerry, who has been a practicing attorney for nearly 50 years. “Listening to him that day, I was completely enthralled. He was so dynamic and had this incredible ability to captivate the audience in a way that few could.”

Three months later, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. His life was cut tragically short, but not his message, said Jerry.

“His assassination really affected me, and really affected Barb. I think it affected many students at ONU whether they had attended his speech or not. Dr. King was such an intelligent person. He knew that a country divided, to quote Abraham Lincoln, cannot stand. And that’s what we were at that time, a country divided by race. There has never been another civil rights leader like him either before or since.”