The Horhn Family: A Legacy of Leadership

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Three generations of the Horhn family are represented in this photo — Charlie Horhn (middle), his son Senator John Horhn (right), and his son John Siraj Horhn (left). (Advocate photo by DeAnna Tisdale Johnson)

Part 1: Generational struggles for equity and justice

A legacy is usually a gift or an inheritance of some sort that is passed down through generations to those connected by blood or by a shared purpose. As African Americans, we celebrate the legacy of African and African American culture during Black History Month and we honor that legacy by exuding excellence in our own lives so that what our ancestors endured would not be in vain and that the generations after us will continue the work. Even more specifically, every January, we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. and his dream for equality and justice for all. He was the legacy of his father and another namesake, Martin Luther, who began the Protestant Reformation. And his children, including Martin Luther King, III and Benita King, have continued to carry out his mission to this day.

Within our own community in Jackson, we have a wealth of individuals who carry, on their shoulders, the great works of their own forefathers and foremothers to create a more sustainable future for all. Some choose to follow in the exact footsteps of those who came before them. Our current mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba is finishing the race that his father and namesake set out to run. Judge Crystal Wise Martin now sits in the same judicial seat her mother, Judge Patricia Wise, occupied for over 20 years. And even the writer has followed in her parents’ footsteps, using words as power to inform and advocate for Black people in Mississippi and across the nation.

Then there are some legacies that grasp the proverbial clay that was there previously, molding it into a design that perfects and makes anew what was there before. One legacy indicative of this kind, that comes to mind, applies to the men of the Horhn family – Charlie Horhn, his second son John, and his only son John, better know as Siraj.

Charlie Horhn grew up in Holmes County, MS near Pickens. He is the sixth child of Tommie and Emma Williams Horhn. “I had five brothers, four sisters, and we grew up in the sharecropping era where we raised a lot of our own food. And we did  work and that kind of stuff for white farmers in order to have money to buy things that we didn’t raise on the farm,” says the senior Horhn.

Like many Mississippi school children, who grew up during the 1940s and 1950s (and assuredly before then), Horhn only went to school certain times of the year. “We had to go to school late in the year. We picked cotton in the Fall of the year up until September, went to school, then we were back out in March again to knock stalks to get ready for the farming, to fly the fields, chop the cotton and that kind of thing. 

 And then in the latter part of the year was harvesting time,” says Horhn. He continues, “So that meant that we had four or five months to go to school in some cases. Most of the children, as they got older, had to cut school time to help the farm, so education kind of alluded us because of the fact that we didn’t have the time to put in.”

Horhn met his high school sweetheart, Willistene Levy, in the 10th grade where they both attended high school, which was housed in a little red building, in 1952, and they married the next year in 1953 when he was 18 and she was 17 years of age. Horhn and his lovely bride stayed on the family farm for two more years so that he could take care of his mother and the rest of his siblings still living on the family land. At the time, he was the oldest child still living at home, and he felt a profound sense of duty to make sure that his mother and siblings were provided for after his father passed away about eight years before he got married, around the time he was 10 years old.

The Makings of a Leader

It was February 1955 when he, his wife, and his two sons relocated to Jackson near the Midtown area. “I got a job at the Presto Manufacturing Company. That’s where I really started looking out for my family. When I moved to Jackson, John was two weeks old.”

In August 1955, Emmett Till was murdered. “My thrust into [the labor movement] centered around Emmett Till’s death. That’s when it really hit me about the danger in Mississippi because of Jim Crow and segregation.” A month later, on Labor Day 1955, a run in with a white woman and the police would solidify Charlie Horhn’s desire to advocate for the rights of Black people. It would also bring forth his realization in the leadership qualities that others saw in him.

“We had a flat on our car. It was a filling station on the side of the road on Highway 51 up in Ridgeland. And we thought the filling station was open. And so we went to try to see if we could get the tire fixed. Unfortunately, the station was closed. There was a white lady that came out and said, ‘Hey, y’all, got $5 out of my car!’ We said, ‘Ma’am, we haven’t been near your car.’

“She said, ‘Y’all got the five dollars on you. You might as well give it to me because, if not, then I’m going to get the law.’ We said, ‘Ma’am, we haven’t been near your car.’ But she went and got the constable. We kept walking, pushing, and rolling the wheel down the street so we could go to the next station to try to get the tire fixed. Well, she went and got the constable. He pulled up in, I think, a 1950-something Jeep Pontiac – long with an antenna on the tail end.”

After being confronted by the constable about the white lady’s missing $5, Charlie Horhn and his two friends continued to plead their innocence. The constable then decided to search them to see if their counterclaim was true. Yet, for some reason, maybe for his authoritative and upstanding countenance and demeanor, Horhn was not searched along with is friends.

“So he decided he would search,” Horhn continues. “I was the spokesperson, kind of like, for the group. He did not go in my pocket, did not ask me to turn my pockets out, did not ask me to pull my shoes off. But he asked the other guys.” Finally, Horhn says that the search was over and the constable turned to the woman and said, “‘I checked these guys out; they don’t even have five dollars. Ma’am you might’ve made a mistake.’ So that satisfied her and she pulled off. He pulled off and told us to have a nice day. That was the experience with the hype in the state [around the] Emmett Till situation; people were blaming Black people for things they hadn’t even thought of doing.”

Though the encounter began with a bit of juxtaposition to the Emmett Till story – being that there was a white woman who felt “wronged” by a Black man – the ending concluded much more positively than the former, allowing Horhn’s leadership abilities and desire to speak out on behalf of others to continue to blossom from there with all deliberate speed.

While working at the Presto plant, the men there formed a civic club with the intent and purpose of registering to vote. “We knew that in Mississippi, in order to get registered to vote, you had to interpret a section of the MS Constitution. So what we did with this group of men – about 20 to 25 of us – we decided we would start studying the MS Constitution. We did that for a number of years. Then we started to say, okay, now who’s going to go down and register? We started putting it in sections who was going to go first and who was going to go next. It wasn’t until 1957 that I figured out the MS Constitution.

“I went down to the courthouse in Jackson. I went in and I said I wanted to register to vote, and they said, ‘Come on over here, boy!’ They gave me the sections of the Constitution. Matter of fact, it was two and I got one of them wrong. I had answered the question right, but I put the answer in the wrong place. And so he said, ‘You got that wrong.’ A white lady looked up, and she said, ‘He answered it right. He just put 12 where 13 ought to be.’ ‘But he should have had sense enough to put them in the right place,’ [said the man]. The lady spoke up and said, ‘You should not turn him down because of that.’ And so I was able to register to vote in 1957. I got a taste of democracy and I wanted to vote in every election.”

Growing up during Integration

Each generation faces its own battles, its own challenges, and, for Black people, its own racial divides. If one of Horhn Sr.’s primary battles was for the right to vote, then a leading battle for his son, John Horhn, was weathering the tide during integration.

“In first through the ninth grade, [we were] in an all Black school, and we had great teachers,” remembers Horhn. “Probably one of the worst mistakes Mississippi ever made was not allowing Blacks to go to school in Mississippi – to Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Southern, or any of those predominantly white schools. But the state would pay a graduate of a high school who was Black to go to Columbia University, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Wyoming University, Indiana University, some of the best schools in the country. They would pay for a Black student to go there rather than go to their white school. And so our teachers were very well educated and they were very inspiring.

I still remember my first grade teacher. From first through the ninth grade, I remember every teacher I had because they had a tremendous impact on me. I did well in school, and teachers would encourage you if they saw that you were doing well. 

“It wasn’t until the ninth grade, the winter of 1970, when we had to transfer to majority white schools, or some white kids got transferred to majority Black schools, and integration came in.

“My first experience where I knew that I was being discriminated against was the way that some of the white teachers treated the Black students in their class. They wouldn’t call on them. They would act as if we weren’t really even in class; they would talk down to us. They would talk over us to the white kids about how these kids were trying hard, but we know that we’re superior to them. But we’re going to try to help them as much as we can.

“The biggest bout of discrimination that I witnessed happen was when I ran for Senior Class President. I was Junior Class President in high school, and I ran to become Senior Class President because I had a buddy – we were best friends – and he wanted to run for Student Body President. So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll run for Senior Class [President].’

 

“As it turned out, I was elected vice president of the senior class. And it was a year later when I found out that I actually won the election [for president]. I went to visit my speech teacher and she said, ‘You know, I have something I need to tell you,’ and she told me that I’d won the election, but the white counselors in school rigged the election, because the Senior Class President is who would address the seniors at graduation, and they weren’t ready for a Black student to address the student body in that way.”

The challenge of the next generation

The writer can attest to having a similar and shared perspective of growing up in Mississippi during the 1990s and early 2000s as that of Siraj Horhn, especially during high school where we both attended and graduated from Murrah in 2004. Murrah High School at that time was a unique institution in that it was majority Black in population, but the APAC (Academic and Performing Arts Complex) classes were either half white, half Black or 60% white and 40% Black. Additionally, there weren’t many teachers in those accelerated classes who were Black.

The gifting of a copy of Revolutionary Suicide by Huey P. Newton to Siraj from his mother, Lydia Gail Horhn, led to an enlightening journey to self discovery for him (one that we will expound on more next week) and also an actual meeting and conversation with one of the greatest proponents for Black liberation – Bobby Seale. During that conversation, Horhn asked Seale what the greatest challenge of the Millennial generation was, and he said, “The challenge for our generation is that what we’re fighting is really invisible.”

“I think he was right in seeing that a lot of the challenges that we have seem vague… [we’re] dealing with systemic racism and systemic issues. And [we’re] also dealing with a high degree of sublimation,” muses Siraj. He continues, “If somebody barges into a room and they throw a brick at you or throw a punch, you know that’s your enemy. If they’re walking into the same room and insult you, it’s the same feeling, but you might not interact with them physically or feel like you need to physically defend yourself.

“But if they maligned your reputation and find a way to damage you economically – not pay you what you’re worth or what your labor was worth – people have a harder time reacting to that as if it was an act of aggression when it is. It is a little bit more sublimation and a little bit more sophisticated. And so people can’t put their hands on it. I think in Atlanta, where I’m based now, and here, the Black community has a hard time kind of coming to grips with that and to act in their own economic and power interests above anything else.”

While discussing family dynamics with Senator Horhn, he prophetically stated that his father lived the history, he read the history, and his son studied the history. The writer ventures to say that the lived experiences and perspectives of each of the Horhn men would lend itself to affirm that creed. Next week, we’ll continue chronicling the life and legacy of three generations of Horhns, which are indubitable linked, not just by blood, but by leadership, community service, and each’s own brand of radical courage.

Part 2: The ties that bind

Within any relationship, whether it be friendship, family, or, as we’ve been discussing, legacy, there are certain ties that bind us. As stated last week, the ties that bind the Horhn men center around a history lived, read, and studied.

Living

History

“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.” – James Baldwin

Charlie Horhn was Congressman Bennie Thompson’s right-hand man for many years. Yet, his most notable achievements center around his efforts to form a union at the Presto plant during the 1960s. “It happened after the 1964 Civil Rights Bill passed,” remembers Charlie Horhn. “The plant that I worked in did not have any Black females on the assembly line. They said that they couldn’t pass the aptitude test.” There were about 200 white and 200 Black workers in the plant, but, at the time, there weren’t many Black females there if any.

In addition to gender discrimination, there was segregation still prevalent inside the plant. “We had separate restrooms at that time, so the company had to take the white and Colored signs off the restroom doors. So, we decided, well, we’re going to integrate this plant. A group of Black men on the midnight shift decided they would go into the former white men restroom. They were chased out of the restroom with pipes and hammers. The day shift heard about it, so we organized a group on the day shift to go in that same restroom. And we did. That prompted a walk out of the white people in that plant.

“The plant felt like they had to call a meeting with the whites and blacks to squelch out the race problems that they saw happening in the plant. So when white people walked out of the plant, they called Ross Barnett and asked what should they should do about this situation.”

The men ended up going back to work but the company decided to form an interracial committee in the plant. And of course, Charlie Horhn was selected to be a part of the committee.  He not only joined, but he was singled out as the leader of the group. One of their first challenges was increasing the amount of Black women working for the plant. The company told the committee that out of 300 Black women who interviewed for the job, only nine had passed the test. Horhn knew that something was amiss and it prompted him to reach out to the white and Black plant workers alike to see if they would be interested in forming a union.

“That’s how I got involved with the union. I got to be the chairman of the organizing committee for the whole plant. My Black co-workers thought I was crazy. The union organizer told me, ‘You got to come out front because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to protect you. Otherwise, they’re going to fight you and claim that they didn’t know you were for the union.’”

Horhn did initially face opposition from both the company and from his co-workers. But he pressed on and after three years of working to form a union. It became a reality. Horhn cited that a lot of their support came from the Black females that began to get hired on at the plant. “It took us three years because the company appealed every decision that the labor board made. We went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the union was voted in [in] 1967. We went to the bargaining table in 1970 and got our first contract. And that’s when, between 1967 and 1970, John was seeing Blacks and whites coming to my house talking about how to keep the union together and keep it strong.”

“At the age that I was, and living where we were living, it was unheard of for Black men and white men to sit around the same table or in the same room as equals to discuss things,” articulates Senator Horhn. “When I started seeing these men coming together, sitting around and talking about workers’ rights, I was inspired by that.”

Charlie Horhn served as chief organizer, chief steward, and vice president during the first three years of the union. And he served as president the next three years. He then learned another valuable lesson. “I learned real quick that even though we had the union in the plant, if we didn’t get involved in politics, the things we negotiated, the bargaining table, could be taken away by bad elected officials who were anti-union. So, that’s why we had to get involved in the political arena. I first learned about A. Philip Randolph before we got the union contract. So, in 1972, I helped set up the first A. Philip Randolph chapter in Mississippi.” Through the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), Horhn and others helped educate the community on the political candidates that would look out for their best interests. 

In 1973, Senator Horhn came back to Mississippi after just graduating college and began working with the A. Phillip Randolph Institute as well.

Reading is fundamental

“A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”   – Samuel Johnson

Senator Horhn’s first job out of college connected him and his father in both advocacy and purpose. When Senator Horhn left college, he became involved with A. Philip Randolph Youth Employment program. “My first professional job was as a job developer for 16- to 21-year-old high school dropouts. The idea was to find jobs, find employment, find a military option, training tools, and educational opportunities.”

Although Senator Horhn hit the ground running when he returned to Mississippi, his occupation looked a bit different than what he had envisioned in college. “I had gone towards a cultural and artistic bend when I was in school as well as shortly thereafter.

“I had a loose desire to become a professional actor at one time, but this guy (his father) convinced me to come back to Mississippi and said, ‘You’re either part of the problem or you’re part of the change. If you leave and don’t come back, you make this more of a self-fulfilling prophecy that we’re gonna go down the tubes in this state, but there’s a lot of opportunity now in Mississippi. So come back and give it three years, and then I’ll help you try to go wherever you want to go.’”

“That was 43 years ago and Mississippi has been good to me. And I think I’ve been good for Mississippi,” Horhn expresses. Since then, he has become a member of the Screen Actors Guild and been featured in various films and TV shows. He has dedicated much of his professional career to advancing culture in Mississippi.

All but two of Senator Horhn’s jobs have been inside of the purview of the State of Mississippi. After he worked for APRI, he led a cultural arts coalition, organizing various cultural programs for Black Mississippians, including Farish Street Festival. “We had poets, artists, musicians, dancers, actors, visual artists and whatnot. And we were using those expressions to try to bring about cultural change and community change,” notes Horhn.

He worked as expansion arts program manager for the Mississippi Arts Commission, film commissioner with the MS Development Authority where he worked to bring movies to be filmed within the state, and executive director of the Governor’s Office of Federal and State Programs.

After that, Horhn was the tourism director for Mississippi from 1989 to 1992. While there, he organized the Mississippi Blues Commission (1991). It became an official entity under state law in 2004. And under its umbrella, the MS Blues Commission sponsored the MS Blues Foundation, which, in addition to aiding MS Blues artists, has helped place over 200 MS Blues markers over the state.

Over an almost 30-year span, Senator Horhn’s reading skills have had to acclimate to the legalese and language of Mississippi legislation, past, present, and future, since he became a legislator in 1993. There, he serves as the Chair of the Labor committee and Vice-Chair of the Tourism committee. He also serves in the Business and Financial Institutions, Finance, Highways and Transportation, Insurance, Investigate State Offices, Legislative Budget, and Public Health and Welfare committees.

“What I’ve tried to do is to be a great networker, to do my homework, to have follow-up ability, and to bring people together. I wanted to take the legacy that my dad started which was to be a great mediator and a great arbitrator.” Senator Horhn notes that though that is sometimes his desire, his strong suit is finding solutions to problems, yet the challenge of that is usually getting people on board with those solutions. He also notes that Siraj’s strength is always being two to three steps ahead in any given situation and being able to connect the dots on how situations and people are interconnected.

Study to shew

thyself approved

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” – Paul to Timothy (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV)

In the era of the early Christian movement, Paul wrote to Timothy, instructing “his son” to stand firm in his beliefs and have courage. As early followers of Jesus Christ, they were both radicals in their own right but also faced massive and cruel punishment and death because of their beliefs. At the time that he wrote these letters, Paul was, of course, imprisoned, awaiting a death in Rome.

In the era of Black Lives Matter, especially post-George Floyd’s brutal murder at the hands of ex-police officer Derek Chauvin, a resurgence of Black pride, Black activism, and Black radicalism has emerged.  For John Siraj Horhn, he has been born into a legacy of change agents who charted their own paths during their own generations and displayed each’s own brand of radical courage to make the road easier to travel for the next generation. A part of his journey was to realize his own purpose and how the “good trouble” his father and his grandfather took part in tied into his own self-actualization. As mentioned last week, this came in the form of a book that his mother, Lydia Gail Horhn, who was a librarian and media specialist at Callaway High School, gave to him.

Revolutionary Suicide, by Huey P. Newton, who co-founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, is an autobiographical manifesto that impresses upon the reader a simply complex adage, “Get free or die trying.”  This book would not only lead Siraj on a journey of self-discovery but would simultaneously water the roots already planted by his father and grandfather.

As Siraj immersed himself in the world of Huey P. Newton, the juxtaposition of Newton’s life with some of the stories he was told by his father and grandfather began to intermingle. “I got into my own political thinking through the book on top of what I got from my family. Growing up and listening to my dad and granddad, I realized that I’ve probably been influenced by both their stories, but also the Black radical tradition. But they mesh. He [Huey P. Newton] mentioned that he had joined Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Incorporated at Merritt College out in California, so that got me into the whole fraternity thing.

“Like my granddad mentioned, those civic organizations like the Elks, church groups, or rotary clubs were where a lot of people kind of first stretched their legs politically and that’s how it worked for me. I started to dig into that. Then I started to dig into fraternities, and I started to dig into my father’s background. I found that he was a part of Phi Beta Sigma, and that was a connection.”

At the time the writer and Siraj both attended Murrah High School, Siraj became very involved in the Phi Beta Sigma youth auxiliary program there, which was called the Beta Club, later becoming the president. As a student at Howard University, he pledged the Alpha Chapter of Phi Beta Sigma there. And his best friend from high school, Johnathan Silas, more affectionately known as Big John, also pledged the fraternity at the Alpha Beta Chapter at Jackson State University. 

Lasting connections

What is most profound is what each Horhn man believes connects them to the other. For Senator Horhn he believes, “If I can draw these parallels, dad had to confront and overcome the system. I think that I found a way to use the system and to co-op the system towards more of my interests. Then, Siraj is not only confronting the system, but he’s remodeling the system. It’s all going towards making the system work for you. In dad’s case, he had to tear down walls. I was able, in some cases, to get inside the wall or to get behind the wall, so to speak. And Siraj and his generation are asking why is this wall here?”

For Siraj, he jokingly wishes that he would’ve received his grandfather’s 6’5” height but realizes that the characteristics that he did receive are invaluable. “I took on his craftiness, his political graft and a lot of the wisdom he had to understand how to move in certain spheres with tact and with a respect for all the different moving parts that were going on politically or socially. That takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of insight. It takes a lot of empathy. And he has an entrepreneurial background, and in dealing with commercial real estate, I tried to build on that part of myself, just the ability to have a vision of where opportunity exists.

“With my dad, I always hear his voice in my head when it comes to executing something. Sometimes you don’t get a chance to be the deep thinker, which he mentioned is a gift of mine. Sometimes you have to just make a decision, make the best decision that you can, and get it done.”

And as Charlie Horhn reflects back, he ruminates, “I learned how to be an organizer. I organize people. I organize by setting up what some people call units or clusters. I’ll set up a cluster of five people, move to another area, and then set another cluster. John has the ability to practically do anything. He has the ability to cross racial, professional, and economic lines, which is a good trait.

 

“I admire [Siraj] because he’s a deep study. If he goes after something, he’s going to stay with it until he gets it done. And John is the same way. He took that from his dad. They might say they took it from me, but that’s what I see in the two of them. If they believe they can do something, they’re going to stay with it until they get it done.”

Through this two-part series, it is quite evident that the Horhn family set their eyes on the prize and they do what they can to get it done. And the rest is still unwritten.

DeAnna enjoys reading and writing and experiencing city life with all its amenities with her fellow citizens. When she’s not uncovering the truth as it needs to be told, she visits museums and spends time with friends and family.