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Rev. Johnnie Johnson Jr. and the 1972 City Workers’ Strike

In the spring of 1972, the Reverend Johnnie Johnson Jr. led about 260 African American sanitation workers and employees of the water, gas, and light departments on a general strike.  Throughout the 1960s, blacks who worked for the city still had faced separate and unequal working conditions: salaries lower than those of white employees doing the same work, separate restrooms and water fountains in employee facilities, even separate coffee pots based on race.  As well as organizing a union, the strikers demanded better pay, fair hiring practices, and an end to workplace segregation.

Johnson had labored for the sanitation department since he was teen.   During the walk-out, he was fired.  On August 31, 1972, he and five other men and women filed a lawsuit against the city for racial discrimination in hires, promotions, and pensions.  The civil rights lawyers C. B. King and Herbert E. Phipps (now a federal judge in Atlanta) represented them.
Four years later, on May 7, 1976, U.S. district judge Wilbur Owens ruled in their favor. He instituted an injunction ordering the city to increase its number of black employees.  In 1995 he ruled that the city had satisfied the court order and lifted the injunction.  Johnson’s lawsuit had a ripple effect, paving the way for blacks in Albany’s surrounding counties to gain jobs and equal treatment.

Johnson opened a business, the Southside Barbershop, which became a gathering place for Albany’s black community, and he pastored St. Mary’s Methodist Church.  After he died on January 11, 2000, he garnered Albany’s Dream Award for his success in identifying and wiping out racial divisions.

Yastrzemski “Yaz” Johnson, his son, continues the struggle.  He is campaigning to rename a downtown building for his father.  If this succeeds, Rev. Johnnie Johnson Jr. will become only the third black leader in Albany, along with C. B. King and Arthur K. Williams, with a city or federal building in town that bears his name and recognizes his activism.     

The sanitation workers' strike is a reminder that the Civil Rights Movement did not end in the 1960s. Towards the end of his life, Dr. King led the SCLC to address issues of poverty in the U.S., and in March 1968 he supported sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, striking for equal pay, safer working conditions, and access to promotions and other benefits based on merit.  The efforts of men like the Rev. Johnnie Johnson Jr. indicate how the Civil Rights Movement was not merely a struggle for racial equality. It was also a struggle to eradicate poverty, to create global peace, and to provide equal access to decent education, housing, and employment.  

Suggested Resources (click here)

Discussion Questions

1. Discuss the relationship between laborers and employers today. Consider issues of gender, race, and geographical location.

2. What is at stake in naming a building after a historical figure? What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so? Think of buildings in your town that have been named after prominent figures. Do you think this naming is appropriate?

3. How does the city remember the Albany Movement? Visit the web sites for the Charles Sherrod Civil Rights Park and the Mount Zion Albany Civil Rights Museum.

4. During the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike, protesters carried signs reading "I Am a Man." What connection did they make between fair employment practices and perceptions of black masculinity? 

Take it to the Streets!

Monuments can act as powerful symbols of community and cohesion. For example, the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial celebrates how Americans from all walks of life came together under Dr. King's leadership to create nonviolent social change and to cultivate a diverse vision of American identity. Make a map of the monuments in your neighborhood or city. Where are they located? What kinds of people do they attract? What social purposes do they serve? What stories do they tell and how are those stories similar to or different from what actually happened? How do they create a public space?

Writer: Professor Barbara McCaskill
Editors: Christina L. Davis, Deborah Stanley, Diane Trap, and Professor Barbara McCaskill  
Researchers: Lauren Chambers, Aggie Ebrahimi, Courtney Thomas, and  Professor Barbara McCaskill    
Web Site Designer: William Weems 

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