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Fighting for his father's legacy

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.

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.

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Johnnie Johnson, far right, helped organize a strike of more than 200 black city of Albany employees for depriving them of rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

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Joe Bellacomo

Yaz Johnson visits his father’s grave at Riverside Cemetery.

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.”

Comments

Moe 2 years, 5 months ago

I suggest naming the unemployment office after Judy "Toilet" Bowles.

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Bubbavet_rureel 2 years, 5 months ago

1964 Civil Rights Act, apply to everyone. This is just one of the many constitutional laws that are in place to deal with unlawful practices.

I knew Mr. Johnson personally and he was not someone who bragged about his past employement legal issues, and if he was alive he would ask his son to not worry about this issue.

Mr. Johnson was concern with the upcoming generation, he wanted to ensure equal and fair process for all, white, black, male, female, etc...

Personally I think that Mr. Johnson deserve the Icon recognition, he only stepped out on faith, courage, and meekness. He was looking for equal rights, equal rights for others, Johnson paved the way for countless others, he changed the makeup of some areas, however, change still must be made in other areas. Time will bring about a change in some areas, new ideals, bringing educated people, who are familiar with the laws etc...

Freedom of Speech, First Amendment Protection Due Process Free From Discrimination Equal Pay Right to Privacy

Bubbavet_rureel, can we be friends? How about that.

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Cartman 2 years, 5 months ago

My father and many in his family fought during WWII. They didn't risk their jobs - they risked their lives. And it was done under deplorable conditions. They sacrificed their youth. In many ways, they sacrificed their innocence. They put themselves in positions where help might not arrive, even though comrades were bleeding, screaming, and dying. They did that so folks like Johnnie Johnson could exercise his right to free speech. They did so to preserve a democracy where court systems existed, so Mr. Johnson could file his suit. No one is naming a building after my dad. He didn't expect it. Neither do I. I congratulate you Yaz for being proud of your dad. But do not for one minute, think that he was better than my dad, no matter who you browbeat into submission. You cannot force someone to honor your dad. They either do that already, or they never will.

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Environmentalist 2 years, 5 months ago

May I suggest that we name the bridge at the Albany State University Campus on Georgia Highway 3 / Radium Springs Road for Mr. Johnson? This bridge covers the pedestrian plaza that connects the South Campus with the North Campus.

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dingleberry 2 years, 5 months ago

Please name something for this guy and get it off the books and out of the newspaper. I still prefer the "Great Blue Arch" over the river so folks can stop and gaze at our Johnson and reflect on the past. Another good option is the ACRI which, although not owned by the city, was funded by the taxpayers, will soon become a permanent ward of the city. An ACRI associated name fits the theme of the civil rights requirement and If Johnson was really an icon within the movement, they should jump at the chance to get us off the hook on this one. Enough!

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dmyers80 2 years, 5 months ago

Ok.... A couple of things here.. First of all Mr. Johnson didnt do what he did for the recognition, I'm pretty sure that when he was going through that lawsuit with the city he wasnt sitting back thinking " I can take credit for every black person working for the city after this." Second of all I agree with commisioner Pike... Yaz is diminishing his fathers legacy by acting like this... If your father made significant contribution to the civil rights to the employees of the city of albany, why would you object to the water fountain(the most significant part) at the CIVIL RIGHTS PARK being named after him.... This doesnt sound right to me when you make a comment like " there are people who are still alive with buildings named after them that wouldnt have been in their positions if not for my father"... Yaz, get over yourself... Your father was a good man and he did some great things leave his legacy in tact.

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dmyers80 2 years, 5 months ago

And by the way $4,700 was a lot of money in 1972.

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MRKIA 2 years, 5 months ago

YAS: NO ONE OWES YOU OR YOUR FATHER ANYTHING AND YOUR ATTEMPTS TO BULLY THE COMMISSION INTO ERECTING OR NAMING SOME PROMINENT CITY STRUCTURE SAYS A LOT ABOUT YOUR OWN CHARACTER. IF THE CITY OF ALBANY EVER DECIDES TO RECOGNIZE YOUR FATHER IT SHOULD BE THEIR OWN DOING WITH THE BLESSINGS AND COOPERATION OF THE COMMUNITY. I AGREE THAT MR. JOHNSON MADE A SACRIFICE THAT BENEFITTED MANY AND NO ONE HAS DISPUTED THAT FACT BUT WHAT YAS IS DOING IS BROWBEATING AND HARASSMENT IN WHAT REALLY LOOKS MORE LIKE BRINGING ATTENTION TO HIMSELF AND NAME RECOGNITION. LET YOUR IDEA OF YOUR FATHERS LEGACY SPEAK FOR ITSELF INSTEAD OF THIS UNENDING BEGGING, BULLYING, PLEADING AND GRANDSTANDING. IT REALLY DOES DIMINISH WHATEVER LEGACY MR. JOHNSON HAS.

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MRKIA 2 years, 5 months ago

I READ A LOT OF ENVY, JEALOUSY AND BITTERNESS IN YAS'S REMARKS. NOT VERY FLATTERING EVEN FOR A STOREFRONT PREACHER. ESPECIALLY THE VEILED THREAT OF THE POSSIBILITY OF A PROTEST OR MARCH AND COMPARISIONS TO ARTHUR WILLIAMS. SIR, YOU ARE DEVOID OF DIGNITY.

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MRKIA 2 years, 5 months ago

BTW: WANT TO GIVE YOUR DAD THE ULTIMATE HONOR? HAVE YOUR NAME CHANGED FROM YASTREMSKI TO JOHNNIE.

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reb_arty1863 2 years, 5 months ago

Please name something after the man so yaz will shut the h--- up. Maybe the broad ave. bridge???

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Jack_Frost 2 years, 5 months ago

Yaz Johnson serves as a good example of a bad example. I point to him and tell my son that, no matter what I accomplish in my lifetime, do not EVER do what this guy does. I would rather be forgotten, than to have my name tarnished with a son's arrogance.
There have been plenty of proposals, and Johnson hasn't been satisfied with any of them. I wish the Commission would tell him to go pound sand and leave him alone. Shame on YOU Carlton Fletcher for giving this guy more ink to degrade his father's memory.

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DueRespect 2 years, 5 months ago

The man was arrested for heaven's sake.....there is a trash barrel down at the Mud Puddle that really needs a name. "JJ" would really look good on it.

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albanyherald1 2 years, 5 months ago

AMEN, Jack Frost! Why are we giving Yaz MORE publicity??? I guess he will keep hounding the commission until they finally get tired of him and do what he says under the "threat" of having a march of protest. Give it a rest, PLEASE!!!!!

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agirl_25 2 years, 5 months ago

If this is about civil rights, sacrifice, and what one did for their fellow man, I think it would be more fitting to name something after James Farmer, a true Civil Rights pioneer, and to stop the arguing over Mr. Johnson. You see, were it not for Mr. Farmer the Civil Rights movement would have probably never gotten started and Mr. Johnson would have just been another Mr. Johnson. In 1942, Farmer co-founded the Committee of Racial Equality, which later became the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.), an organization that sought to bring an end to racial segregation in the United States through nonviolence.

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Abytaxpayer 2 years, 5 months ago

Yaz Johnson just wants his father to be recognized for the role he played in helping or forcing Albany (depending on your view) to make changes that needed to be made. Albany honestly had no choice and was destined sooner or later to make the changes that were already required by law. Because Johnnie Johnson had the backbone to standup for what he knew was legally right Albany was forced to face the legal changes and accept the changes. A lot of people have lost sight of the fact Johnnie Johnson’s actions did not create any new laws he only worked to gain those rights already guaranteed by the Constitution. Johnnie Johnson’s actions did lead to a class-action that placed a burden on Albany for many years, but if you honestly look past the emotions that burden was self-inflicted by people who did not want Albany to change. Whether you agree with the changes or not, those changes were inevitable and Johnnie Johnson only forced Albany to move into the future and stop hiding in the past. Like him or not you have to respect him as a man for standing up for the legal rights that were due him and others in Albany.

Yaz’s persistence may annoy some people but then so did his Dad. Yaz has been frustrated because some city leaders do not take him serious just as they did his father years ago. If the commissioners will stop throwing Yaz a bone ever now and then and have a serious negotiation with him where both sides talk with the goal of honoring Johnnie I am betting Yaz can find happiness.

This is not the first time I have spoken in support of Yaz, so I have already seen and heard from many of you, but before any more post here based solely on their emotions stop and ask yourself am I just going to say that because I do not like the changes that were made. I ask that you take into consideration Johnnie Johnson did not cause any new laws to be written he only wanted the rights already granted him by the Constitution to be honored in Albany. Johnnie was not looking for a handout or someone to mail him a check he wanted to WORK and be treated fairly at his job with the rights already guaranteed him by the Constitution, but just not recognized in Albany.

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