Former Tulane coach Johnson hopes to inspire at MLK rally

Annual march to begin at West Bank Bridge Park

Curtis Johnson remembers what Dr. Martin Luther King stood for, and he’s proud to have the opportunity to spread the legend’s teachings.

The former Tulane head football coach will be the guest speaker Jan. 18 as The Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Organization of St. Charles Parish holds its annual march and rally. The march will begin at the West Bank Bridge Park in Luling at 9:30 a.m. and end at Earl J. Landry Sr. Alternative School in Hahnville. The rally is set to begin at noon.

Johnson, a native of St. Charles Parish and alumni of St. Charles Catholic, has become one of the larger names in football locally after spending 2006 through 2011 as the wide receivers coach of the New Orleans Saints and then the head coach of the Tulane Green Wave from 2011 through 2015.

Johnson was also an assistant coach at the University of Miami, where he helped the Hurricanes win nine bowl games and the 2001 National Championship. There, he was instrumental in the recruitment of future NFL superstar Ed Reed; while at San Diego State, he recruited future NFL Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk.

The coach called the invitation to speak at the MLK rally “a truly great honor.”

“Just to be asked, it means the world,” Johnson said. “(King) stood for so many great qualities. He aimed to create something better. To be able to speak on his day in St. Charles Parish, the place I grew up … I was shocked when they asked me, and I’m ecstatic to be in this position.”

The march and rally has been held for the past 28 years and part of its purpose, said organization president Lillian August, has been to motivate young people to learn about and heed what King represented.

August believes the event will draw a strong crowd.

“Every year, it seems to get bigger and bigger,” she said. “You know, especially for our children, we want to let them hear this important message and let them know how important it is to get an education and strive for excellence in their lives. Too many times, (youths) don’t do what they’re supposed to do and take the easy way. It often ends in tragedy. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

She said Johnson was a natural choice as guest speaker.

“We always look to choose someone from the parish, and he has deep roots here,” August said. “His father was a councilman. People know him from his time as an assistant coach for the Saints and with Tulane. His voice is one that we think will resonate with the people of our parish.”

King was fatally shot in March of 1968 in Memphis, Tenn. He was 39. That day, he gave the last speech of his life as he stood in support of a walkout protest of unequal wages and working conditions imposed on African-Americans. While King was an advocate of non-violence, his death’s immediate aftermath led to riots in more than 100 cities. Johnson said he remembered the day King was assassinated and its aftermath, and it’s stuck with him forever.

“I remember the looting and the chaos,” Johnson said. “It still sticks in my mind. It was a very bad time for us.“But he died for a cause, and he put us on a path to a place where we could have never gone before … Dr. King died for the belief that every man be treated equally. It’s important that we don’t let that go to waste.”

That last point, Johnson said, is the ultimate message he hopes to impart in his upcoming speech. In light of the violence and tragedies seen all too regularly in society, Johnson wishes to remind others of King’s teachings of peace.

“We have so much today, freedom, opportunities, because of what he fought for. Let’s not squander it,” Johnson said.

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