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
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)
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
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
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.
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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
Lauren Chambers, Aggie Ebrahimi, Courtney Thomas, and Professor
Site Designer: William Weems
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