Republican Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger last week called for an end to Georgia’s electoral runoff system, one of the many ripples from a tense contest that saw Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock win re-election. In a special year-end episode of Now & Then, “Georgia (Voting Rights) On My Mind,” Emory University African American Studies Professor Carol Anderson joined Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman to discuss the racist origins of the runoff system and to highlight historical moments of pain and persistence in the centuries-long quest for voting rights in the state. Leroy Johnson, who in 1962 became the first Black state senator from Georgia since Reconstruction, navigated widespread white resistance – including some runoff machinations – in his attempt to open up the political process to all Georgians.

Leroy Johnson was born in 1928 on Atlanta’s rough-and-tumble West Side, the son of an embalmer. As a child, Johnson deftly avoided scuffles with local bullies. “I learned two things as a boy,” he reflected to the New York Times in 1970. “First, that it’s no fun to be poor. Second, that you’ve gotta outrun the opposition if you want to stay whole.” 

Johnson doggedly built an academic record. He attended Atlanta’s segregated Booker T. Washington High School, studied history at Morehouse College, got an M.A. in Political Science at Atlanta University, and graduated from North Carolina College Law School in 1957.

He became the first Black American on the staff of Fulton County Solicitor General Paul Webb and later served as a leader in Black voter registration efforts through his work with the Atlanta Negro Voters League. By 1962, the 34-year-old lawyer, his wife Cleopatra – a librarian for Atlanta’s public schools – and his 11-year-old son Michael were gearing up for an entrance into the political arena. 

The mechanics of the 1962 Georgia elections reflected a state in turbulent transition. The Georgia Senate had voted for the first-ever two-party primary, signaling a crack in the one-party armor of segregationist Democrats who had dominated state politics since the end of Reconstruction. 

The successful voter registration drives orchestrated by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Civil Rights movement allies had made imaginable the election of Black state legislators, potentially from both major parties. The last Black state senator had left office in 1870. The last Black member of the Georgia House, W.H. Rogers, had quit in protest in 1907, when notoriously racist Georgia Governor Hoke Smith eliminated Black voting rights in state primaries.

George T. Coleman, the Black Atlanta Daily World’s police reporter, commented on the power of seeing Black candidates of different parties, particularly given the political vice grip of long-serving Dixiecrats like U.S. Senators Herman Talmadge and Richard Russell and Congressman Carl Vinson: “Getting a second party in the state will force the Russells, the Talmadges, the Vinsons to see that they had better start working for the rights of all the citizens or others can eliminate them from the office.”

Johnson dived into this rapidly-morphing climate, declaring his candidacy in West Atlanta’s 38th District – a district with 45,000 Black Americans and 35,000 whites – on October 4th, 1962. 

Soon thereafter, Black Republican T.M. Alexander, whose Southeastern Fidelity Fire Insurance, Co. was the only Black-owned fire and casualty firm of its kind in the country, also declared in the 38th. If the two Black candidates could win their primary races, a Black state senator would be virtually assured. 

During a candidate appearance at Warren Memorial Church on October 13th, Johnson highlighted the historical significance of the potential all-Black general election. “I’ve got to win this election as the Democratic nominee so there will be a guarantee that a Negro opposes Mr. Alexander. If I’m elected the Democratic nominee of the 38th District, Mr. Alexander and I will be fighting for our political lives in the general election. If either of us wins, the voice of democracy will be heard around the world.”

Alexander was not quite as gracious, arguing that Johnson’s decision to run as a Democrat signaled his accommodation to a state Party “which has worked hard to prevent what is happening here tonight.”

Unlike Alexander, who ran unopposed for the nomination of the nascent Georgia Republican Party, Johnson faced four white challengers in the October 16th, 1962 primary. Johnson won convincingly, picking up the majority of overall votes. Johnson’s main challenger was Ed Barfield, a passionate segregationist endorsed by a racist interest group called the White Citizens of West End.

After their respective victories, however, Johnson and Alexander found their candidacies hanging in the legal balance. Months earlier, the Georgia Senate had recognized the growing possibility of viable Black candidates, fearing the new voting power of Black Georgians. 

In the lead-up to the primaries, the Georgia Senate had collaborated with longtime State Attorney General Eugene Cook – who routinely called the NAACP a Communist Party organ – to ensure that Fulton County’s seven state Senate races open up into county-wide runoffs for the top two candidates in each district. The decision would have pitted Johnson against Barfield before all of Fulton County, which still had a slight white majority. 

Civil rights leaders had appealed the shift, arguing that candidates who got the majority of votes in a district should not be subject to a countywide referendum.

On October 20th, 1962, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Durwood Pye, despite being a virulent segregationist, agreed that district candidates who won the majority of votes could skip a county runoff.  “The foundations of representative government require that members of the Legislature shall be elected by the voters of the locality they represent,” Judge Pye said in his order. 

“Johnson won his district fair and square,” Pye said upon his ruling. “I say let him. I predict he’ll make a better senator than some over there.” Johnson was officially the Democratic nominee in the 38th District.

In the November 6th general election, Johnson almost doubled Alexander’s vote count, becoming the only Black member of a Deep South legislature. 

Johnson’s election instantly catapulted him to national prominence. National Black newsmagazine EBONY summed up the impact of the election in March 1963: “His election was hailed far and wide. Negroes in rural hamlets and big-city ghettoes took heart. The Voice of America beamed the news to Europe, Asia and South America Republican and Democratic strategists in Washington sat down with pencils and tried to chart the course of the future.”  

Before he took his seat, Johnson headed out on a tour of the East Coast in support of Civil Rights. On New Year’s Day 1963, he appeared in Garden City, New York, for a NAACP Emancipation Centennial Dinner. Johnson likened the Cold War intensity of the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis to the violent struggle over the same period to support Black student-activist James Meredith’s efforts to integrate the University of Mississippi.

“While the Russians were building intercontinental missile bases in Cuba and digging in with the materials of war, we were sending 20,000 troops to Oxford, Mississippi,” Johnson said.

When Johnson arrived at the Georgia State Capitol in January 1963, “Whites Only” signs in the building began to come down. The long-debated quest by Civil Rights leaders to desegregate the building had finally come to pass. 

Johnson issued a hopeful statement at the opening of the legislative session: “Let me say very clearly that the mere fact that I’m here in the legislature serves as an inspiration and hope for Negro girls and boys throughout the state and South…As a boy I could not realistically dream of being a state senator.”

Johnson also highlighted the importance of building bridges with white legislators, many of whom had never had Black friends, let alone colleagues: “In many cases those lines of communication will be opened for the first time with men from the Southern parts of the state who have never had the opportunity to communicate with Negroes, other than janitor or maid.”

In February 1963, Johnson shared with JET magazine letters sent to him during his first month in office. One bigoted Illinois writer condemned a state-sponsored  dinner Johnson had attended with Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, writing, “N____ votes are costly to the taxpayers of Illinois.”  

A retired white South Georgia preacher, however, sent Johnson a much more supportive note: “There is a halo in the position but the halo gets mighty hot sometimes. I am glad to note that you don’t seem to feel too much elated over the halo of your position or embarrassed over its heat.” He ended, “I am for you. Go to it. Magnify your office.”

Johnson continued to serve as ambassador for equal representation in politics. He attended a thousand-person Emancipation Proclamation reception at the White House on February 12th, 1963, posing with President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson. “Crazy,” one young attendee told EBONY about the reception. “I glimpsed the President, and all of a sudden I saw the first Negro Senator from Georgia, a Supreme Court justice, NAACP’er Roy Wilkins, and Ethel Kennedy.”

Johnson headed back to D.C. in August 1963 for the March on Washington, where he heard Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “I’m going because I think this is the greatest single action in the social revolution taking place in America today,” Johnson told the Daily World.

During his first term, Johnson fought for altering Georgia textbooks to include more Black history, worked to eliminate vestiges of segregation in Atlanta restaurants, integrated the Senate Page Program, and reduced from 30 to 6 the number of test questions on state voter registration forms. 

Johnson continued to make headlines for the next decade. In the late 1960s, he led a spirited fight to abolish Georgia’s death penalty. Johnson and his increasingly powerful coalition was courted in 1970 by fellow State Senator Jimmy Carter, who was mounting a run for Georgia governor. 

The same year – in a particularly high-visibility coup – Johnson managed to bring to Atlanta Muhammad Ali’s first fight after the boxer refused induction into the Vietnam draft. Ali scored a career-reviving victory against white boxer Jerry Quarry. 

Johnson took a $175,000 cut from the fight, which at least in part led to a cascading investigation into his finances. “Two days after the fight, IRS agents came to my home at 7:30 AM,” Johnson told EBONY in January 1976, “and they’ve been after me ever since.”  

In 1974, the IRS conflagration resulted in Johnson’s indictment for tax evasion. He beat the heaviest charges, but was convicted of submitting a false affidavit and lost his Senate seat amid the negative publicity. After serving 36 days, he organized a group of Black entrepreneurs to buy the failing Atlanta Internationale Hotel, but was unable to stop its foreclosure, leading Johnson to file for bankruptcy in 1978. 

Johnson weathered his difficult financial and legal straits and  remained a passionate advocate for civil rights. In 1994, he testified at a federal trial to reform Georgia’s run-off system, which had mutated in 1964 to require a runoff for most elected offices where one candidate did not receive more than 50% of the vote. “It was crystal clear that one of the motives for majority vote was to deter and derail Blacks from entering the political process,” he testified.

Johnson’s fire for equality was also on full display in 2017, two years before his death, when he ended a University of Georgia oral history with a thought to his pioneering Senate tenure: “I would want to be remembered as one who, at a very difficult moment in history, sought to prove that — given an opportunity — a Black man could be just as effective a legislator as a white man.” 

For more on Atlanta’s role in the voting rights movement, read Tomiko Brown-Nagin’s 2011 Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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