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Detroit civil rights pioneer Arthur Johnson dead at 85

HERB BOYD Special to the AmNews | 11/17/2011, 2:43 p.m.
Detroit civil rights pioneer Arthur Johnson dead at 85

Every branch of the NAACP has a number of unsung, tireless workers who, while known in their communities, rarely achieve national recognition. In Detroit, Dr. Arthur Johnson was foremost among these freedom fighters. He was also a highly respected educator. Johnson, 85, died Nov. 1 at his home in Detroit.

According to a family spokesperson, Johnson had suffered from the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease.

While he may not have received the acclaim he deserved on the national stage, Johnson's contributions in Detroit and its metropolitan area were matchless as he led the Detroit chapter of the NAACP in various capacities for more than 40 years. He also served at Wayne State University from 1965 on as a teacher and vice president.

"Arthur Johnson's passing is a tremendous loss for the NAACP and all of the civil rights community," stated Roslyn M. Brock, chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors. "Mr. Johnson's influence and advocacy has left an indelible mark on our organization and the state of Michigan."

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing recalled that when he arrived in Detroit there were three men on his mind to contact: Mayor Coleman Young, Judge Damon Keith and Johnson. "They were the kind of role models who represent what we expect in strong Black men. They were sensitive to the issues facing our people and weren't afraid to stand up and speak out," Bing told the Detroit Free Press. "Whether it was leading the NAACP, Wayne State or in the arts community, Art was always there. He had a tremendous, positive impact on this city, and will be greatly missed," Bing said.

Born in Americus, Ga., Johnson was raised primarily by his grandmother. He attended Morehouse College, where he graduated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1950, the NAACP recruited him and dispatched him to Detroit to become the branch's executive secretary, a post he held from 1950 to 1964. From 1987 to 1993, he was president of the branch.

His vision and leadership were instrumental as the Detroit branch gained its reputation as one of the top fundraising branches of the NAACP.

Wendell Anthony, the branch's current president, was tutored by Johnson. He said Johnson's "tenure as both the executive secretary and then president of Detroit Branch NAACP were marked by both great strides and great challenges. In particular, I'm gratified that Dr. Johnson will always serve as a very important and transforming part of NAACP history in this community."

Equally important was Johnson's long tenure at Wayne State University.

"I always felt the hot breath of Arthur Johnson on my neck as I was making decisions," said Irvin Reid, who became president of Wayne State in 1998. "He became the conscience of the university for so many of us whom he taught that serving the community was not just our mission but our destiny. He never asked anything for himself; it was always what we could do for others, for the city and the broader Detroit community."

Johnson was at the university during the turbulent days when the city was wracked with unrest and the campus was rocked by students and their demand for a Black studies program. He recalled some of those challenging days in his memoir, "Race and Remembrance," though some activists from that time may quibble with his account.

Even so, Johnson regained the judicious balance that would characterize his remaining years at Wayne State and, more rewardingly, his work in the city's cultural affairs.

"Arthur Johnson, for many years, has been the catalyst for accessibility and inclusion for the entire community to the full breadth of the arts experience in Detroit," said Wayne Brown, director of music and opera for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C.

A preeminent mover and shaker on so many vital social and political fronts in the city, Johnson will be sorely missed. He leaves to mourn his passing his wife, Chacona, and three children, Wendell Johnson, Brian Johnson and Angela Sewell. He was preceded in death by three sons, Averell, Carl and David.