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Leroy Johnson (1929 – 2019), Georgia’s first black senator after Reconstruction

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He played a pivotal role in desegregating Georgia's capitol building

Leroy Johnson was Georgia’s first black state senator elected after Reconstruction, serving from 1963 to 1975. While serving in Georgia’s legislature, Johnson played a pivotal role in desegregating the state capitol building. Also an attorney, Johnson used his knowledge of the law and his status as a state lawmaker to have Muhammad Ali’s boxing license reinstated in 1970 after it had been stripped in 1966 for his refusal to be drafted. Johnson ran for mayor of Atlanta in 1973, but he lost to Maynard Jackson, who became Atlanta’s first black mayor and served three terms. Johnson was honored in 2017 with the State Bar of Georgia’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

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Died: October 24, 2019 (Who else died on October 24?)

Details of death: Died at the age of 91.


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Desegregating the capitol building: When Johnson first arrived in the capitol building to serve his state, he found an unfriendly environment, where bathrooms and drinking fountains were labeled “white” and “colored,” and not a single one of the pages who assisted congress members was black. Johnson himself hired black pages for his office, and both he and the pages who worked for him used the white facilities. They did it quietly, with no attempt to make a scene. But they were noticed, and others in the building reported it to Governor Carl Sanders. Sanders responded – not by correcting or punishing Johnson, as the accusers must have thought he would, but by having the labels removed and fully desegregating the capitol building. Read the full story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Notable quote: “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.’ None of this was done with a news camera pointed to capture the fact.”

What people said about him: “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 Georgia politics.” —Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

“Sen. Leroy Johnson broke barriers & stereotypes by becoming the 1st black GA state senator elected post-Reconstruction. More, he created opportunities for others in politics & beyond its reach. I was honored to know him, and with his family, mourn his passing. Godspeed, Senator.” —former Georgia Rep. Stacey Abrams

“I’m sorry to hear that my longtime mentor & friend, Sen. Leroy Johnson, passed away. He was an inspiration to me and he motivated me to emulate his path to public service. I extend my sincere condolences to his family and all those who mourn the loss of this great trailblazer.” —U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, Jr.

Full obituary: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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