Leroy Johnson, Barrier-Breaking Georgia Politician, Dies at 91

Leroy R. Johnson, a prominent Georgia politician who in 1962 became the first black candidate elected to that state’s Senate since Reconstruction, has died. He was 91.

A number of officials, including Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, posted news of his death on Thursday. Further details were not immediately available.

“Senator Johnson was a groundbreaking statesman,” the mayor said in a statement, “whose formidable presence in the Georgia Senate, two years before the signing of the Voting Rights Act, put equality into play in Southern politics.”

Mr. Johnson’s barrier-breaking election was only one element of a career in which he was an important figure not only in Georgia but also beyond. In a 1970 article in The New York Times Magazine, the journalist Stephan Lesher, after rattling off the names Julian Bond, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Coretta Scott King and Charles Evers, said that “among those who earn their bread in and around politics, one Southern black leader stands a head taller than the rest — a relatively obscure 42-year-old Georgia state senator named Leroy R. Johnson.”

In his ability to deliver blocs of votes, cut deals with political enemies and promote the interests of black Georgians, Mr. Lesher wrote, Mr. Johnson was “without peer in Southern black politics.” And even though the candidate he backed in the Democratic primary for governor that year had lost, the article noted, he was such a force that “the victorious nominee, Jimmy Carter, put out peace feelers to Johnson even before the balloting.”

Mr. Johnson’s influence extended beyond politics. After Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces in 1967, he was stripped of his heavyweight title and barred from boxing. City after city tried to engineer Ali’s return to the ring, but because the issue was so polarizing, none could manage it — until, in 1970, Mr. Johnson pulled enough strings to arrange for Ali to fight Jerry Quarry at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium (a fight Ali won).

It was perilous territory; Mr. Johnson received death threats and was given police protection in the weeks before the fight. But the effort won him accolades. At the fight, he was introduced to the cheering crowd and a large television audience as the man who had made the event possible.

Leroy Reginald Johnson was born on July 28, 1928, in Atlanta to Leroy and Elizabeth Heard Johnson. He grew up in Atlanta, seeing segregation at every turn — a fact of life, he said, that he didn’t really think much about until after he had graduated from the all-black Booker T. Washington High School and enrolled at Morehouse College, an all-male black institution.

“I had almost accepted segregation without realizing that I had done so,” Mr. Johnson said in an oral history recorded in 2007 for the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies at the University of Georgia. “I had accepted segregation as a matter of course.”

As an example, he cited one of his favorite activities: going to the movies at a segregated theater that required him and other black people to use a separate entrance and sit in the balcony. An address to students by Morehouse’s president, Benjamin E. Mays, in Mr. Johnson’s first week on campus changed all that.

“He said, ‘Morehouse men must never, ever pay for segregation,’” Mr. Johnson recalled, “‘because segregation robs you of your dignity.’”

Dr. Mays, he said, specifically condemned going to segregated theaters, saying that the very act of paying for an inferior seat accessed through a separate entrance was in effect an admission that white people were better than black people.

“I thought that Dr. Mays was talking directly to me,” Mr. Johnson said. He added, “That was the defining moment of my life.”

Mr. Johnson earned a master’s degree in 1951 at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) and taught social science in the Atlanta school system before earning a law degree at North Carolina Central University in 1957. Such were the times that he made headlines later that year when Paul Webb, Fulton County’s solicitor general, appointed him as a crime investigator, breaking the color barrier. Mr. Webb found himself having to explain that he thought “a Negro investigator might get more information out of Negro citizens.”

Court rulings in the early 1960s broke down election practices that had restricted the power of urban voters, especially black urban voters, in Georgia, and Mr. Johnson saw an opportunity. He got an early start on the 1962 election as well as some smart advice from advisers, including that he stop smoking his beloved cigars in public.

“They told him that cigars blurred his image and made him ‘look’ like a politician,” Ebony magazine wrote in a 1963 article about him. “And more — cigars, the advisers said, reminded white people of Negro politicians of the Reconstruction era.” He switched to cigarettes and cigarillos.

He was elected, becoming the first black state senator since 1870 and the first in either of Georgia’s two legislative chambers since 1907.

At first he was ostracized.

“There were those who really thought that because I was present the ceiling would fall and the seats would crumble,” he said in the oral history. “They thought that, and for the first some 40 days that I was there not one senator spoke to me, except those who were in my delegation from Atlanta.”

But then one day near the end of that first session, he was late for a committee meeting, and by the time he arrived, a vote on a particular bill had already been taken and had come out a tie. When he walked into the committee room, he was suddenly very popular with colleagues on both sides of the issue.

“They ran over to me and said, ‘Senator, I need your vote,’” he recalled. “And I stood there and I wondered to myself, ‘What happened to my blackness?’ All of a sudden what they saw was not a black senator walking in the room; they saw a vote.”

“After that,” he added, “it seemed that the ice had broken.”

He was sometimes accused of cozying up to white politicians, even segregationist ones. To Mr. Johnson, though, deal-making was part of opening doors.

“Most of my enemies are guilty of Reconstruction thinking,” he told The Times in 1970. “They think that a politician, especially a black politician, only does something when you cross his palm with silver. What they don’t understand is that when I support a man for an office, I want entry to that office, not money.”

“I want the power that comes from picking up that phone and seeing a governor or a mayor when I want to,” he added. “I want to influence policy, I want to get blacks into key jobs, and yes, I want a voice in deciding who those blacks will be.”

Mr. Johnson ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Atlanta in 1973, and in 1974 he was defeated in his bid for re-election to the Senate. At the time, he was facing tax-evasion charges; he was acquitted but convicted of a lesser charge, providing a false affidavit to the Internal Revenue Service.

Information on Mr. Johnson’s survivors was not immediately available.

From the beginning of his political career, Mr. Johnson was keenly aware of his role as a groundbreaker.

“When I taught history and citizenship,” he was quoted as saying by Ebony in 1963, “I could never point out with any real enthusiasm the possibilities of citizenship for my students. Now, a Negro boy or girl can aspire to be not only a senator but governor of this state.”

On Thursday, Stacey Abrams, who in 2018 narrowly missed becoming Georgia’s first black governor, said on Twitter: “He created opportunities for others in politics & beyond its reach. I was honored to know him.”

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