Johnny Flakes Jr. emerged in the burning heat of a summer this city will never forget, joining men and women who had experienced the indignity of being second-class voters and passengers who had to ride on the back of the bus.
Since that summer of fear and fire 50 years ago, his has been a constant voice for justice, and his death this week writes one of the final chapters of an era that is fading from the local history books.
Frustration had turned the cool of the evening into an inferno and Mayor J.R. Allen frantically searched for solutions. Among the representatives from the black community invited to the old courthouse was a slightly built Baptist preacher wearing the darkest sunglasses Morton Harris had ever seen.
"I thought he was a Black Panther," the longtime attorney said.
Flakes was a new face. Most African-American pastors in the room were older, and so were others on the mayor's guest list. In the room were people like Brookhaven YMCA director A.J. McClung, attorney Albert Thompson, funeral director George Ford, businessman Gordon Kitchens and physician Delmar Edwards.
This was a different world. The Columbus Police Department had around 50 black officers. Thompson was the only black elected official. Schools were segregated, and only whites males had reserved seats in local boardrooms.
The core of this group shared common memories. They supported local barber Primus King's push for the right to vote in Georgia in 1944. They lobbied for the hiring of black lawmen in 1951. They barricaded together in people's homes after the murder of Dr. Thomas Brewer in 1956.
Flakes became pastor of Fourth Street Missionary Baptist Church in 1961. As his voice grew louder, so did his congregation's. Situations like the fire bombings of the 1960s put his name in the Rolodex of city leaders. Since then, in times of crisis, he has always been called.
But the world is not the same. Ministers and funeral directors used to be vital in the black community, for they did not depend on the wallets of their white neighbors. That began to change when blacks were elected to office.
Thompson was the first black legislator to chair a standing committee in the Georgia House and first black judge on the Muscogee Superior Court. McClung served as mayor pro tem. Blacks have chaired the school board.
One by one, the community has buried these interesting voices from the past. Their counsel is lost along with their contributions. Others grab the podium, but they lack the experience and the courage that once was required.
And whether we're white or black when we bury men like Johnny Flakes Jr., we are burying pieces of our history that must not be lost.
-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.