First black Georgia state senator elected after Reconstruction has died

Former state Sen. Leroy Johnson, the first black state senator elected after reconstructio, has died. BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM

Former state Sen. Leroy Johnson, the first black state senator elected after reconstructio, has died. BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM

Former state Sen. Leroy Johnson, the first African American elected to Georgia’s upper chamber since Reconstruction, has died. He was 91.

Johnson, an attorney and former teacher, was elected as a Democrat in 1962 and served until 1975.

His inclusion in the 1963 class of freshman lawmakers marked him as a part of a group of rising politicians, including a future president, Jimmy Carter.

Photos: Remembering Leroy Johnson

Johnson garnered national attention after he was first elected, gaining recognition in black publications such as Ebony.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson called the former senator a pioneer.

“He was the highest-ranking black person in America at the time,” Jackson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat to joined the Legislature the year that Johnson left, called the former senator a “remarkable man” who had an amicable smile and friendly demeanor.

“Leroy Johnson is probably one of the most renowned public servants Georgia has ever seen,” Smyre said.

Johnson can be credited with working to quietly desegregate the Georgia Capitol.

Johnson in 2008 told the story as part of an oral history project organized by then-Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson.

On Johnson’s first day in office, the restrooms, drinking fountains and chamber galleries were labeled “white” and “colored,” he said. And all the pages who delivered messages to lawmakers were white.

"I carried my pages into restrooms that said 'white' instead of 'colored.' And when we got to the water fountain, I had them drink from the water fountain that had the sign that said 'white' instead of 'colored,' " Johnson said in 2008. "None of this was done with a news camera pointed to capture the fact.”

Shortly after, then-Gov. Carl Sanders removed the signs from Capitol.

Johnson also could be credited with reviving Muhammad Ali's boxing career after he was stripped of his license for refusing to comply with the military draft.

“He is the is the very reason why Muhammad Ali got back into the ring,” Jackson said. “And it happened only in Atlanta because of Leroy Johnson.”

Jackson said Ali’s career might have been over had Johnson not worked to secure a location in 1970 for the boxer to fight in Georgia.

“You did what nobody else could do,” Johnson told the AJC, quoting what Ali said to him at the time. The fighter then handed his boxing gloves to Johnson and said, “I will forever be grateful.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms praised Johnson’s “early and influential” support of MARTA and called his eventual appointment as the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman a national symbol for the power of the black vote.

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

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan said Johnson’s election played a vital role in the civil rights movement.

“Senator Leroy Johnson was a true public servant who devoted his life to the betterment of our state, both as an attorney, educator and elected official,” Duncan said.

» MORE: How Leroy Johnson and Carl Sanders desegregated the state Capitol in 1963

State Sen. Nikema Williams, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, praised Johnson for breaking barriers in the chamber where she serves.

“Senator Johnson paved the way for black Georgians, including me, to rightfully take our place in the halls of the Gold Dome and represent our communities, unapologetically, at a time when that work seemed impossible,” she said. “Georgia is a better, more inclusive state thanks to his service.”

A graduate of Morehouse College and what was then Atlanta University, Johnson studied law in North Carolina because the University of Georgia was not accepting black students at the time.

In 2017, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Georgia State Bar.

State Sen. Gloria Butler, a Stone Mountain Democrat, said Johnson devoted his life to “making change.”

“It can be easy to forget that we stand upon the shoulders of those who blazed the trails we are now on,” Butler said. “He truly is a jewel in Georgia's crown.”

Read and sign the online guestbook for Leroy Johnson