Loretta and Duane Johnson's book "Bridge of Demarcation" is on Amazon


August 17, 2022

A Big Sandy native and her husband have published a book dealing with his experiences in 1967 Atlanta while living in an all black dorm. Bridge of Demarcation by Duane and Loretta Johnson tells the story of a racially-charged time through the eyes of a native born Montanan. Much of the story is told through the nearly 50 love letters he wrote during the time. Loretta Johnson, whose maiden name is Nepil, grew up southeast of Big Sandy and graduated from Big Sandy High School in 1964. She still has family in the area.

Loretta met Duane Johnson in 1967 while working in Havre. "Our love story developed quickly. I knew within the week first week that I would marry him some day. I'm not sure why, but I just had a good intuition." The pair communicated and eventually fell in love through their love letters after Loretta moved to Fort Benton for Student Teaching and Duane traveled to Atlanta for a fellowship.

By 1967, Atlanta had made some progress in regards to desegregation, but the environment was tense. Golf courses in the city had been desegregated in 1957 and the Atlanta bus boycott had led to integration of the city's buses in 1959. Some restaurants and hotels had already desegregated, though not the majority. However, the city was the site of historic race riots over three days that summer. The book relates Duane's experiences and what he learned while living amongst black students during those tumultuous times. One aspect that is particularly unique is the correspondence between the couple. The plan hadn't originally been to use the letters in the writing process. Duane had already begun writing the book when Loretta discovered their love letters. "I discovered all 50 of the letters. I hadn't read them for 50 years, and I forgot where they even were. He had written the first six chapters. I talked him into integrating the letters, because they really told the story, his emotions, and what he was experiencing. We changed it to first person since he had been writing it as a third person. That's when we changed it to someone who was living at the moment."

With the shift in perspective, the realism of the account and the dramatic tension of the story really came to life. Stories of shootings, knife fights, and other violent experiences prompted many readers to comment that they grew worried about Duane's fate, only to stop and recall that he lived and was able to write the account. Loretta explained that, "...men said that he was so courageous. I used to just beg him to quit and come home, because I thought he was going to die there." Bridge of Demarcation offers a unique perspective on events at the time. Further details are provided through newspaper articles and fliers that Duane sent to Loretta with his letters. They paint a picture of events such as a clash between student protestors and police and community efforts to raise money to help injured student protestors in South Carolina.

"It's a very historical book in the sense that this was a very tumultuous time, 1967 and 1968. And it's a story that needs to be told. There are so many young people that were not living when Martin Luther King was assassinated or when Robert Kennedy was killed. This was a time of great strife, and yet, we were moving forward."

The Big Sandy Public Library has a copy of Bridge of Demarcation. It can also be purchased on Amazon, through Barnes and Noble, or other bookshops.


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