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Willard Johnson

Willard R. Johnson is professor emeritus of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). For over thirty years (1964-1996), his academic focus was on international relations and development policies and institutions with an emphasis on Africa. Throughout his career, he combined scholarship and teaching with political activism. In addition to African studies and comparative politics, he devoted energy and time to the economic development of inner city America. Johnson was a core leader in the creation of TransAfrica, a national lobbying group for African liberation and support.

Johnson was born in 1935 in St. Louis, Missouri. Both of his parents were born in Kansas. His father was a bacteriologist with the U.S. Public Health Service, which led the family to move several times as his father’s career advanced. His family included a brother and twin sisters. They moved to Tuskegee, Alabama, and then to Pasadena, California, in 1946, where Johnson joined the Pasadena Boys’ Club. Johnson graduated from Muir High School in Pasadena and went on to receive his B.A. degree in international relations at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where he was president of the student body during his senior year. At UCLA, he was a founding member of a chapter of the NAACP, which brought W.E.B. DuBois to the UCLA campus as a speaker. Johnson received his M.A. degree in African Studies with distinction from John Hopkins School of International Studies and his Ph.D. degree from Harvard University. His dissertation was on “Cameroon Reunification: The Political Union of Several Africas.” In 1964, he was appointed Assistant Professor of political science at MIT.

In 1966, Johnson returned to Cameron to extend his research and then turned his Harvard dissertation into a book, The Cameroon Federation, that was published by Princeton University Press. On leave from MIT from 1968 to 1970, he helped to establish and served as the executive director of a community-owned, non-profit economic development promotion complex, Circle, Inc., in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. Circle included a small business development center, an investment fund, a management-training institute and a consulting firm.

In 1972, Johnson directed the Africa Policy Task Force for the George McGovern for President committee. During the 1970s, he served on the Democratic Party Advisory Council’s Foreign Affairs Study Group. His earlier public service included two terms on the U.S. National Committee for UNESCO.

Johnson was one of the founders and senior advisors to the Boston Pan-African Forum, Inc. He led the Boston unit of TransAfrica in its “Free South Africa Movement” campaign, making the banning of South African Kruggerrand coins part of the anti-apartheid agenda of the U.S.

In 1991, Johnson founded and now directs the Kansas Institute for African American and Native American Family History (KIAANAFH). The Institute promotes the preservation, documentation and appreciation of family identity, traditions and achievements of members of African American and Native American communities of the Midwest. The Black History Bulletin (Jan. – Dec. 2001, Vol. 64) carries an article by Johnson on “The Great Escape” of Indians and Blacks into Kansas during 1861 and 1862.

Johnson co-authored with his wife, Dr. Vivian Johnson (whom he met as a UCLA student), West African Governments and Volunteer Development Organizations: Priorities for Partnership. The Johnsons, residents of Newton, Massachusetts, are the parents of two married daughters, Kimberley Johnson Ogadhoh, born in 1963, and Caryn Johnson, born in 1960.

Accession Number

A2005.260

Sex

Male

Interview Date

12/9/2005

Last Name

Johnson

Maker Category
Schools

John Muir High School

Harvard University

Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

University of California, Los Angeles

Pasadena City College

First Name

Willard

Birth City, State, Country

St. Louis

HM ID

JOH26

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Missouri

Favorite Vacation Destination

Mexico, Caribbean

Favorite Quote

You Can Do Better.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Massachusetts

Interview Description
Birth Date

11/22/1935

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Boston

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Peas (Black-Eyed)

Short Description

Political science professor and genealogist Willard Johnson (1935 - ) was a core leader in the creation of TransAfrica, a national lobbying group for African liberation and support. He is professor emeritus of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the founder and director of the Kansas Institute for African American and Native American Family History.

Employment

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

MIT Center for International Studies

Center for African American Issues

The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

The Circle, Inc.

Favorite Color

Brown

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Willard Johnson's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Willard Johnson lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Willard Johnson describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Willard Johnson describes his mother's personality

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Willard Johnson describes his maternal grandfather's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Willard Johnson describes his maternal grandmother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Willard Johnson describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Willard Johnson describes his father's career

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Willard Johnson describes his paternal grandparents' family background, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Willard Johnson describes his paternal grandparent's family background, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Willard Johnson describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Willard Johnson remembers his elementary school and George Washington Carver's funeral

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Willard Johnson recalls his move to Pasadena, California

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Willard Johnson recalls George Washington Junior High School and John Muir Junior College

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Willard Johnson describes his involvement with the Boys Club of Pasadena

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Willard Johnson describes his family's religious outlook

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Willard Johnson recalls influential teachers and mentors in Pasadena, California

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Willard Johnson describes his high school jobs and interest in political science

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Willard Johnson recalls the University of California, Los Angeles during the Cold War

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Willard Johnson recalls his campaign for student body president in college

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Willard Johnson describes his job at the National Student Association

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Willard Johnson describes his time at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Harvard University

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Willard Johnson recalls his time in Cameroon, pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Willard Johnson recalls his time in Cameroon, pt. 2

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Willard Johnson describes his positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Willard Johnson recalls the creation of the Circle, Inc.

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Willard Johnson recalls receiving tenure at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Willard Johnson recalls his studies on the African-Arab Cooperation program

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Willard Johnson describes his work with the TransAfrica Forum

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Willard Johnson describes the African Heritage Studies Association

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Willard Johnson recalls launching TransAfrica as a general lobby in 1977

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Willard Johnson describes the movement to boycott the Krugerrand coin

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Willard Johnson remembers Nelson Mandela's visit to Boston

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Willard Johnson describes the Kansas Institute for African American and Native American Family History

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Willard Johnson reflects upon the connection between African Americans and Native Americans

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Willard Johnson describes the history of the Trail of Tears

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Willard Johnson talks about 'Tracing Trails of Blood on Ice,' pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Willard Johnson talks about 'Tracing Trails of Blood on Ice,' pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Willard Johnson reflects upon the Freedman Roll and black Native Americans

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Willard Johnson reflects upon his life

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Willard Johnson describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Willard Johnson describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Willard Johnson narrates his photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$4

DAStory

3$6

DATitle
Willard Johnson recalls his campaign for student body president in college
Willard Johnson recalls launching TransAfrica as a general lobby in 1977
Transcript
It was a kind of, they say, up to that point, it was kind of historic and there had been one black president before [at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Los Angeles, California], I think, named Sherrill Luke, who was pretty famous in the California area, but what made our, our campaign so important was that it was hard fought and that I brought in some new tactics. I went in, it's commuter campus right, so I went around and met every bus and, you know, at the edge of the parking lot all the students who were coming in as commuters, try to get this notion, we all have a right to live on campus, and I lost by twenty-seven votes, so I asked for a recount and they went through, you know, all these fanfare and it turns out I won by one vote in the recount. So then, that made the newspapers, you know. So then I said oh, no, that's no mandate. We going to hold this election all over again. So we held it all over again and then we had a record turn out and I won, landslide, not landslide, but significant, you know. And then I set out to try to change the culture of student government, so my thought was, and I wasn't alone in this, but, I mean you know, it was a serious effort in the '50s [1950s], you know, coming out of McCarthyism and sort of approaching the '60s [1960s], the '60s [1960s] hadn't burst on us yet, that we should approach student government as part of a governance of the university itself, and we should participate in the governance of the university, that we were not out of society, we were a part of society on campus and all the issues in society were our issues, and were proper with what should be within the purview of student government. So we took that position, sort of wrote that as our platform, and organized a student party and I ran with a group, a slate of people, as a party, but I was the only one on it to win, and that by, you know, by this little margin. So then we set out to restructure student government so that it would be on an academic basis and we would get away from the fraternities and sororities as the basis for student representation. And that's why they talked about my year was the constitution revision year. And we got it through but then it, it failed in a vote to the, in the general vote, so we did not achieve the reorganization, but some of the people who were with us in that campaign at UCLA then went to Berkeley [University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California] and they became part of the later Free Speech Movement. And at Berkeley there was also the second instance of running as a party, I'll call slate, at Berkeley and they won, and Free Speech Movement came out of that at Berkeley.$$Where did you end up living when you went to UCLA?$$At this cooperative housing, at Landfair House [Los Angeles, California], which was great actually, when I look back on it, because all of the students of color, that's where they had to live. Wherever they came from so you had a lot of international students, so, Hassan Nasir who later became secretary general for OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] was one of our roommates, Achmen Bedry [ph.] who became one of the ministers of agriculture in the Sudan, was one of our housemates, and then, you know, there were others also. Ed Thorp [Edward Thorp] who wrote the book 'Beating,' you know, 'Beating the Table' [sic. 'Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One,' Edward O. Thorp] or something, in Las Vegas [Nevada], was one of our house mates. Yeah, we had a good time.$Just at that point Randall Robinson and Chris Enteda [ph.], at Harvard [Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts], Randall is in law school [Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts], Chris is in the divinity school [Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts], were engaging the Portuguese territories by asking Harvard to divest itself from its holdings in the Gulf Oil Corporation and others doing business in, in Angola. And, of course, they refused to do it, et cetera. So that's when I first met Randall, was in the context of our looking for some framework that make our organization bigger, or I guess, get a leader beyond ourselves for it, and we, you know, were disappointed with Owusu [Howard Fuller; Owusu Sadaukai] so then I meet Randall, I said, well, you know, let's, let's collaborate and throw our, our weight behind Randall. Randall at that point has organized the Gulf boycott, so that became our first project. In the course of doing that project we then talk about these larger visions of having a lobby, and let's move on in that direction, and so that's the group. It's the Committee of Positive Action out of the African Heritage Studies Association coming out of that Puerto Rico meeting. Now Randall was not at the Puerto Rico meeting, but we have the entourage then to put with him and so he moves to Washington [D.C.], takes a job with one of the congressmen, black congressman from St. Louis, East St. Louis [Illinois]. And actually he also works with the person I'm trying to think of, and, and then we plan for launching TransAfrica [TransAfrica Forum; TransAfrica] as a lobby, and it's formally a lobby. We create a second institution as TransAfrica formed, as a 501(c)(3) to do the public education. We were, it was hard money, you know, we were going to be able to walk the halls and try to influence legislation and influence elections. And it took some years to put that together, but in 1977 it was, it was together, and we all went on the board, all of them from the Committee on Positive Action became the core, essentially the first board, and then I think Ron Walters [HistoryMaker Ronald Walters] recruited the Dick Hatcher [HistoryMaker Richard Hatcher] from Gary [Indiana] and Dick Hatcher may have been the one to recruit [HistoryMaker] Harry Belafonte or Randall may have done that. I'd already known Harry from an earlier episode and, you know, we launched TransAfrica as a general lobby for the African liberation struggle, not just for South Africa. Subsequently, of course, things came to focus on South Africa after the Portuguese, the success of the Portuguese Revolution of 1974 [Carnation Revolution] and the freedom of Angola and Mozambique and so forth. Then you had a staging area so to speak of liberated territory around the (unclear), and you could focus in, and so that's what we did, and then, you know, we come to really hone in on apartheid, on into the Free South Africa Movement in the '80s [1980s]. I, you know, got a call today that while they were in the embassy from the office saying, you know, Randall and [HistoryMaker] Marion Barry and Fauntroy [HistoryMaker Reverend Walter Fauntroy] are in the embassy, you know, it went as we thought and this man was not going to sort of repudiate, you know, apartheid, and so forth. So they're gonna stay and now is the time for the secondary stuff. So what we decided to do here was to go after the consul. We knew it was an honorary consulate and so therefore we had a chance to actually get that person to resign because he's got more, you know, he's an American law firm with a contract with South Africa to serve as their counsel and now, you know, it's a long story, but, but that tactic worked and we were able to then stage a success within a couple of days of getting the consul to resign and became a public event. But knowing that that might happen, we then looked beyond that success to say how do we sustain an effort here?