ALBANY "It’s been a long time comin’ but a change is gonna come. . .” The soulful sound of Sam Cooke’s civil rights classic filled the air Sunday at the Albany Public Works Department on North Monroe Street as a crowd gathered to attend a naming ceremony for two city buildings honoring Johnnie Johnson, a city of Albany employee who walked off the job more than 40 years ago to protest the unfair treatment of black workers.
Johnson started working with the Public Works Department in 1958 at the age of 18. At the time, blacks held janitorial positions and were restricted from applying for supervisory positions or running for public office. During the next decade, Johnson and fellow city employees worked to oppose the city’s policy of segregated bathrooms, water fountains and pay scales for black employees. On April 20, 1972, Johnson’s walkout and subsequent firing in the midst of a labor dispute prompted 260 black employees to walk out behind him, causing the largest city-wide strike in Albany history. Four years later, Johnson won a lawsuit ordering the city to make its employee roster proportionate to the number of blacks of working age in Albany.
Judge Herbert Phipps was the keynote speaker for Sunday’s event. “Johnnie Johnson earned this,” he said. “He stood up for what was right. Often it takes only one person to spark a movement. One person to stand up for what is right and say ‘I’m not going to take this anymore.’ Others will follow and something good will come from it. This city is a better place because of the movement he ignited through his litigation.”
Sunday’s ceremony was the culmination of more than a decade of effort by Johnson’s son, Yaz Johnson, who has been tirelessly petitioning the city for more than a decade to see his father honored in such a way, He was both proud and humbled as the Johnnie Johnson, Jr. Public Works Building and the Johnnie Johnson, Jr. Wellness Clinic were offically named for his father.
“Today is monumental. I had the faith this was going to happen,” Yaz Johnson said. “It may have been a long time coming, but it was right on time.”