LEE OTIS JOHNSON WAS A symbol of many things, and that can be a killing burden. All his life he had been reduced to shorthand labels: radical student agitator, black power advocate, casualty of Texas’ draconian drug laws, victim of racism, petty criminal. But labels are beside the point in death, and Lee Otis Johnson died alone, in Houston, on June 12 of complications from circulatory problems. He was 62 years old.
He was best known for the thirty-year prison sentence he got in 1968 for passing a marijuana cigarette to an undercover police officer in Houston. Those who thought the punishment didn’t fit the crime distilled their outrage into a chant—”Free Lee Otis!”—that was heard on campuses around the state, including Texas Southern University, where he had been a leader of the Student Non- Violent Coordinating Committee in the mid-sixties. In a famous incident in 1970, protesters disrupted a speech by then-governor Preston Smith at the University of Houston. Unfamiliar with Lee Otis’ case, Smith asked a reporter, “What in the world do they have against beans?” When the reporter explained what the crowd was shouting, Smith said, “I thought they were saying ‘frijoles.’” The papers loved it, and the Lee Otis story took on yet another bit of symbolic cachet, providing a perfect example of the clueless politician.
Lee Otis was released after four years when a federal judge ruled that his trial should not have been held in Houston, where passions about the case were running high. But although physically free, he could not escape his personal demons, and from then on he was in and out of trouble, trapped in a cycle of heroin addiction, crime, and prison time.
Dick Reavis, a writer who befriended Lee Otis during their days as campus radicals in the sixties, recalls him as an insightful political thinker who couldn’t rise above his inclination toward low living. After Lee Otis’ release from prison, in 1972, Reavis helped where he could. When Lee Otis was in prison again, on a burglary charge, Reavis posted the bond to get him released when his conviction was set aside, putting him up in his home and counseling him on a new start. Lee Otis repaid the kindness by bringing a thief into Reavis’ house to steal his wife’s jewelry. In 1980 Reavis told the story in Texas Monthly, writing that he felt close to Lee Otis Johnson, but also, like so many other people, betrayed by him. “If not for the movement,” Reavis says today, “he’d have been just another hood.”
“His life deteriorated in prison,” says Lee Otis’ sister Dorothy White-Lewis, who prefers to recall the charismatic, fun-loving brother she knew. He once gave her a photograph of himself with the inscription “I don’t know why God didn’t make me rich, but he certainly made me beautiful.” According to White-Lewis, he turned down requests from people who wanted to write books or make movies about his life: “He said he didn’t want other people to make money on his story.” Between troubles, he would settle into managing apartments his family owned in Houston, occasionally using the legal skills he had developed as a writ writer in the Texas prisons.
“He was a wonderful young man, brilliant,” says a pastor of Lee Otis’ church in Houston, who prefers not to be named. “He tried to come back to the church, but he had to wrassle. It was a struggle.” The pastor recalls that once, while helping him fix a broken faucet, Lee Otis said, “I really want to do the right thing.” He told Lee Otis that he had the power to choose good over evil. “But that’s my struggle, Reverend,” Lee Otis replied. “That’s my struggle.”
In his last days, the doctors told him that he would die if they didn’t amputate both of his legs, but he said no. “He did not want to be an amputee,” his sister says. “He never had any regrets. He told me, ‘Whatever happened to me is not my parents’ fault; it’s not your fault. It’s what I decided to do. The way I am now, I did it to myself.’”