After hearing the Rev. Martin Luther King speak, Shirley Johnson, then 16, spent a lifetime serving others.


If you go

MLK Parade in Liberty City: Annual parade also features marching bands, cheerleaders, and athletes on cars, floats and on foot. Local politicians and activists also join in. The parade reaches the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Park in which parade goers can celebrate with food, kids’ activities and entertainment. The parade starts at 11 a.m. Monday and runs along Northwest 54th Street from 12th to 32nd avenues. For more information, visit

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Scholarship Breakfast: The 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project hosts the 21st annual breakfast fundraising event and celebration, which brings members of South Florida’s diverse community together to commemorate the life and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to demonstrate community-wide support of the mentoring program. Award-winning stage, film, and television actor and director Charles “Roc“ Dutton is the keynote speaker; 8:30 a.m. Monday; Jungle Island-Treetop Ballroom, 1111 Parrot Jungle Trail, Watson Island, Miami. For more information, call 305-995-2451, ext. 2.

MLK Service Day by the Jewish Federation: Community service in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Service projects include landscaping, gardening, painting murals, and building benches; 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday at Homestead Middle School, 650 NW Second Ave. in Homestead. To volunteer, call 786-866-8680 or send an email to

Bike Tour—It’s Elementary, My Dear Martin: Event honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King combines a tour of the Coral Gables Museum exhibit with a bike ride for kids ages 10 and over to Coconut Grove to learn how the Bahamians of that community contributed to the development of Coral Gables. The trip ends with a special event at Peacock Garden Cafe. Bike riders must be able to maintain speed of 10 mph; 11 a.m. Sunday; 285 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables. $10; $5 for museum members, kids 11 and under. 305-603-8067,

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Picnic Celebration: Annual event includes youth entertainment, poetry contest, food trucks and kids' activities, including bounce houses and petting farm. For poetry contest info, call or go to website; 1-4 p.m. Sunday; Potters Park, 4300 SW 57th Ter., Davie. Free. 954-797-1166,

HandsOn Miami Day of Service: The volunteer organization will host a service project at Arch Creek Elementary, 702 NE 137th St., in North Miami, from 9 a.m. to noon Monday. About 50 volunteers will enhance the school’s environment and create an outdoor classroom. For more information, visit

Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration 2014: The City of Miramar host its first MLK event with a mini-parade and fun activities including inflatable rides, a video game trailer, food for purchase and live entertainment. Mini parade starts at 11 a.m. Monday at Forzano Park, 2000 Douglas Rd. Celebration follows at Lakeshore Park, 8501 South Sherman Cir. Free. For more information, call 954-602-3319.

MLK Youth Forum and Peace Walk: Speakers inspire and educate middle and high school students with the ideals of Dr. King during a breakfast. The event precedes a reflective walk by Biscayne Bay to promote the idea of worldwide peace; 10 a.m. Tuesday; FIU Biscayne Bay Campus, 3000 NE 151st St., North Miami. For more information, visit

After nearly four decades in the Miami-Dade Schools system, Shirley Bailey Johnson stood before a third grade class for the first time.

She’d spent several years at the teachers union and away from the classroom before landing in front of the 28 third graders at Lake Stephens Elementary in 2005. Half of them had been retained because of low FCAT scores.

Her first lesson was short and simple.

“A book a day keeps the ignorance away,” she told her pupils.

A little boy raised his hand.

“Dr. Johnson, what’s ‘ignorance?’ 

She asked him to grab the dictionary on the shelf and read the definition to the class.

“Ignorance ... a lack of knowledge,” he declared.

“You got it,” she said, smiling.

Johnson, 69, a lifelong educator, Civil Rights advocate, mother and mentor has spent her lifetime trying to keep ignorance away. She has passed this lesson onto her family, her students and all of those she has met and mentored along the way.

It’s a lesson she learned from the best; she was there when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. told the world about his dream at the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963.

Then 16 and sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the NAACP logo, she’d traveled 18 hours by bus from Jackson, Miss., with her father and 14-year-old sister Verna. They came to listen to King and the five other Civil Rights leaders who spoke, decrying the unequal conditions for blacks. Like the thousands who gathered that day at the Lincoln Memorial, Johnson listened to the words of King — “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’’ — and came home transformed.

“His dream actually became my mission,” she said.

Family Affair

Ebony Jackson’s membership in the NAACP pretty much began at birth.

“I started so young, it’s almost a way of life for me,” said Jackson, Johnson’s 39-year-old daughter.

Her mother’s involvement in the NAACP formed the foundation for her and her sister Valencia McDuffy’s activism. Jackson currently is the adviser to the Miami-Dade chapter’s Youth Council.

She said her mother has taught her many lessons, but one stands out.

“Really standing up for what you believe in,” she said. “That was one thing she taught me that really made a difference in my life.”

Now she guides members of the NAACP youth council, who meet once a week to organize Thanksgiving food drives, voter registration campaigns and discuss current events.

“I find that with youth, if you don’t keep them engaged a little bit more often, the passion does not stay the same,” she said.

The passion still hasn’t left her 22-year-old daughter Tamaya, who grew up listening to her grandmother’s stories about living through the Civil Rights movement.

“I feel like I have really good examples to look at,” she said.

Tamaya is a student at Florida State College in Jacksonville, where she splits time between school and work as a hair stylist. Growing up in Miami-Dade County and at one point serving as vice president of the youth council, she’s accustomed to taking on issues that affect black youths, such as the school-to-prison pipeline.

“We still are dealing with the same kinds of issues,” she said. “It’s a struggle.”

From her time with the council and with her family, she has learned how to express herself effectively.

“Just the exposure ... I’d talk to a lot of kids my age, and they don’t know how to interact with older people,” she said.

Ties That Bind

Francis Francois was a quiet temp worker at United Teachers of Dade’s office in 2000. He wanted to register his young son for Pre-K, but didn’t have a car.

Mom had moved away after a separation, and the newly single father needed a hand.

Enter Shirley Johnson. She noticed the man who kept to himself in the corner and decided to strike up a chat with him.

“She sat at my desk and asked me about myself and my family,” he said.

That’s all it took for Johnson to lend Francois her car and call the principal of Phyllis R. Miller Elementary, where Francois’s son was soon enrolled.

“She didn’t have any reason,” said Francois, now 40. “She just is who she is. I found out later she just likes to empower others.”

Throughout the years, Johnson has remained Francois’ mentor, encouraging him to go back to school to get his master’s and his Ph.D (he’s now in the dissertation stage.) She got him involved in the local chapter of the NAACP, where he currently serves as chair of the young adult committee. She rekindled his Christian faith.

She even introduced him to his wife.

For the quiet man who grew up in poverty in Little Haiti, Johnson’s influence is immense.

“My employment, my faith, my family. She’s touched all aspects of who I am right now,” he said.

Wilbert “Tee” Holloway, a member of the Miami-Dade School Board, knows Johnson from worshiping at New Way Praise and Worship Center in Miami Gardens.

“She’s certainly Christ-centered and spiritually grounded in her principles,” he said.

Johnson took Holloway’s two sons under her wing through the NAACP youth council.

“I think she encouraged them to be leaders,” he said. “To not be normal, to apply themselves to whatever they endeavored.”

Francois puts it simply. With humility and reverence for her maker, she gets stuff done.

“She’s a doer,” he said. “We need more doers.”

The Mission

Shirley Johnson retired from the Miami-Dade school district last year after 42 years.

Having worn many hats throughout her career, memories of that third-grade class are particularly special for her. She had 14 children who needed to get out of third grade, and the ticket was a higher FCAT score for each.

Each person had a job in her classroom, which she said she ran like a “company.”

There was a line inspector to keep the lines straight. An attendance checker to call roll. A clean-up crew to keep the room tidy.

“They all felt important,” she said. “I empowered them.”

Besides the academics, she took a personal interest in the children. She knew some of them had unstable situations at home. She’d chat with young boys who spoke of getting used to parents in jail. She took a mother and four kids to Walmart to get them eyeglasses when she noticed they squinted a lot in class.

The long nights — some so long custodians would have to kick her out — and extra effort made for a memorable teaching experience.

“I had the greatest year of my life,” she said.

She’ll never forget when grades were finished and test scores came in at the end of the school year. Tears come from her eyes when she recalls it.

“Every one of those children … every one passed.”

Follow @joeflech on Twitter.

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

 <span class="cutline_leadin">El dúo</span> cubano Buena Fe, formado por Yoel Martínez (izq.) e Israel Rojas, durante su primera presentación en Miami en el Teatro Manuel Artime, en diciembre del 2009.

    Miami-Dade County

    Cuban duo’s upcoming concert draws protest

    Miami-Dade County will not cancel the upcoming concert of controversial Cuban musical group Buena Fe, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said Tuesday

  • Environment

    County wants closer study of FPL canals

    The utility will have to provide more details about what’s ailing its canals and how it plans to deal with them in the future.


    Missing Miami woman’s ex kills himself after police find body in car trunk

    A week after a Miami woman was reported missing after shopping with an aunt, then not showing up for work, police found her body in the trunk of an abandoned car in a residential Flagami neighborhood. Later, a former boyfriend with whom police wanted to talk stabbed himself in the Keys.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category