Johnnie Johnson and other sanitation and Water, Gas & Light Commission workers filed suit against the city of Albany in 1972 for discriminatory employment practices. His son, Yaz Johnson, is asking city leaders to name a downtown structure in Johnson’s honor.
ALBANY, Ga. — Many days, Yaz Johnson leaves the 1005 W. Gordon Ave. storefront that houses his Yaz Photography studio, as well as the Walk By Faith Ministries chapel where he serves as pastor, and he drives due east. Invariably, his path intersects with the Arthur K. Williams Micro Business Center.
And Johnson’s frustrations are rekindled.
“I have nothing against (former Albany City Commissioner) Arthur Williams,” Johnson says. “But there’s that significant building named in his honor, and the city will do nothing to recognize my father. I’m not going to downplay the significance Arthur Williams might have had on the city of Albany, but if it hadn’t been for my dad, he wouldn’t even have had that opportunity.”
For the past decade, starting some two years after the death of his father, Johnnie Johnson, in 2000, Yaz Johnson has been asking city leaders to honor his father’s legacy by naming a “significant structure” in the city for Johnnie Johnson. It was the elder Johnson, his son notes, who “sacrificed his job and his health” to successfully fight discriminatory employment practices used by the city of Albany.
Years after passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts in the mid-1960s, Albany leaders were found in 1972 to be, among other practices, refusing to allow black workers to apply for promotions; segregating such employee facilities as restrooms, drinking fountains and coffee pots; holding segregated employee functions, such as Christmas parties, and overwhelmingly favoring white applicants for employment over black applicants.
Finally fed up, it was Johnnie Johnson who spearheaded an employee walkout and eventually a class-action lawsuit that permanently changed the face of Albany. Johnson and fellow Public Works employee Ernest Culbreath, as well as Water, Gas & Light Commission workers Willie Foggy, June Mayo, Lindberg Roberts and Julius Cobb, were plaintiffs in a landmark case now widely known as Johnson et al v. the City of Albany, Georgia.
‘WOW, THAT WAS MY DAD’
Federal Judge Wilbur D. Owens of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia ruled in Johnson and the other black employees’ favor in a decision handed down May 6, 1976. Owens noted that “the patterns and practices having continued and being likely to continue into the future, the plaintiffs are entitled to a permanent injunction against the city of Albany and the defendant officials including their successors in office,” dramatically changing the city’s hiring, promotion and payment practices.
“After his ruling, Judge Owens put the city under certain requirements,” said Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Herbert Phipps, who worked with famed civil rights attorney C.B. King on the Johnson case. “Those requirements were meant to remedy the deficiencies throughout the city. And he required monthly reports to make certain things were done as he ordered.
“(The ruling) couldn’t undo overnight the wrongs that had been taking place over decades, but it put the process in place to do it over time. So that case did more to bring the city of Albany into the 20th century than any other court action that came before it.”
Yaz Johnson was a 5-year-old tyke when his father’s firing sparked an employee walkout that, at its peak, included 260 black city workers. On April 19, 1972, Johnnie Johnson got into a dispute with his supervisor and was fired. When word spread among black employees, they walked off the job. City Manager S.A. Roos gave the workers 24 hours to return to work or lose their jobs, and while many did, 124 employees were terminated.
On Aug. 31, Johnson and the aforementioned workers filed suit.
“I wasn’t old enough to know what was going on at that time; I just knew my dad was in the newspaper and on television,” Yaz Johnson said. “I have fond memories of the excitement that was running through our house, of meetings that were held there during the strike and the court hearings.
“My involvement at the time was holding up the signs that were made for the protests, and I thought that was such a big deal. But I also remember my dad talking with all these important people, and as I got older and started researching that time, I learned what all that excitement was about. I was like, ‘Wow, that was my dad.’”
BENEFITS FROM SACRIFICES
It was the research he did as a high school student and beyond that now has Yaz Johnson pushing for a monument to his father’s sacrifice. He’s talked with city and county officials about such edifices and entities as the county-owned downtown Government Center, the Albany Police Department’s Law Enforcement Center, the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport, the Albany Municipal Auditorium and the historic Broad Avenue Memorial Bridge.
For various reasons, he’s been thwarted at every turn.
“People have come to me and said, ‘You’re certainly very picky’ when I told the (Albany) City Commission I wasn’t interested in having the downtown fountain or some park or little street or alley named for my father,” Yaz Johnson said. “And I tell them, ‘Yes I am picky.’ I’m picky because my dad sacrificed his career and he sacrificed his health for something he believed in.
“And all those black city officials who have held office since than, and all those black employees who have worked for the city since then, are benefitting today from his sacrifice. So, no, I’m not going to just settle.”
Johnson’s singular determination has been off-putting for many in the community, especially those who see him only on brief TV news segments or read newspaper snippets about his quest to honor his father. Current Ward III City Commissioner Chris Pike even goes so far as to say Johnson’s efforts may be diminishing the historic significance of Johnnie Johnson’s actions.
“The city of Albany was certainly not adhering to federal civil rights legislation, and Johnnie Johnson deserves recognition for helping bring attention to that fact,” Pike said. “What he did was significant. The problem is finding the appropriate thing to do to honor him that fits within city guidelines and meets (Yaz Johnson’s approval).
“Some of his suggestions have not been appropriate, I don’t think, and I’m afraid if he keeps rejecting suggestions made by the city, his stubbornness might diminish the image of his father. I would hate to see that happen.”
Johnson counters with perhaps his most bitter words.
“They wanted to name a water fountain in honor of my father?” he says. “That was a slap in the face. How am I supposed to swallow that when there are other people still alive who’ve had buildings named for them and they would never have been considered for such an honor if it hadn’t been for my dad?
“And people have suggested he did it for ‘the money.’ (Johnson shows a signed settlement notice indicating the amount of money Johnnie Johnson received for his efforts: $4,707.36.) It’s ridiculous.”
GREAT STRIDES MADE
Phipps acknowledges the impact Johnnie Johnson had on bringing about change in the city.
“He was a good guy; he was willing to stand up when few would when he saw something wrong,” Phipps said. “It was his leadership that led to the (Johnson) case going to court. C.B. King asked him if there were others who felt the way he did, and when (Johnson) said there were, (King) encouraged him to have them come forward.
“The next day when we got to the office, there were people lined up on the sidewalk. Sometimes it takes one person with the nerve to stand up for what’s right, and others will follow. That’s why people of Albany should not forget folks like Johnnie Johnson.”
Two of the city’s longest-serving managers — Fire Chief James Carswell and Public Works Director Phil Roberson, both of whom were city employees at the time of the Johnson v. City of Albany case — confirm that their hiring practices are still impacted by the ruling.
“Obviously, prior to that ruling, there were a lot of things wrong with the way the city hired, fired and promoted its employees,” Carswell said. “The process was broken and needed to be fixed. (The Johnson case) started the city moving in the direction to clean things up, to bring some needed balance.
“We now work hard to eliminate even the perception of unethical practices in the hiring and promotion process. We try to make the process as transparent as possible so that at the end of the day everyone will have had equal access and equal opportunity.”
Roberson notes that the city now takes a proactive approach to ensure equitable employment practices.
“There are things the city does now that we aren’t required to do, that were never part of the (judicial) mandate, but we do them to assure employees that all have equal opportunities,” the Public Works director said. “I think the changes that came with the Johnson case were long overdue, but the city has made great strides since then.”
KEEPING HIS LEGACY ALIVE
Yaz Johnson doesn’t disagree. He just wants his father to be recognized for the role he played in those changes.
“If you see me at a commission meeting, you notice that I’m alone,” Johnson said. “I’ve had fellow pastors, friends, neighbors, family members of the others who were involved in the lawsuit and just people in general encourage me to lead some kind march or protest, and they all assure me they’d be right by my side. But I tell them no; I tell them I want to do this without the commotion, without the rhetoric, without the hatred and without dividing the city further.
“I feel like eventually the city is going to do this because it’s right. Until they do, I will stay after them; I will continue my one-man fight. I remember those days when my dad was fighting for his family, putting everything he had on the line. That’s where I get my energy and passion. I have two sons, and at the end of the day — as any father would — I want them to be in the position I am in today: to be proud of their father.
“Keeping his legacy going, that keeps my dream alive.”