Johnson, James Weldon

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Johnson, James Weldon

James Weldon Johnson. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
James Weldon Johnson.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

James Weldon Johnson was a key figure in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) between 1916 and 1930, and helped transform that organization into the leading African–American Civil Rights advocacy group in the United States. Johnson's efforts as NAACP field secretary greatly increased the number of NAACP branches and members, and his work as executive secretary during the 1920s expanded the association's Lobbying, litigation, fund-raising, and publicity campaigns. Johnson was also a highly accomplished writer and played a vital role in the African–American literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Johnson was born June 17, 1871, in Jacksonville, Florida. His parents, James Johnson and Helen Louise Dillette Johnson, encouraged his pursuit of education, and he graduated from Atlanta University in 1894. He then took a job as principal at the Stanton School in Jacksonville, where he established a high school program.

He studied law with a white lawyer in his spare time, and in 1898 was admitted to the Florida bar. He also wrote lyrics for songs composed by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. In 1900 the two wrote the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which later became known as the "Negro National Anthem." The two brothers moved to New York in 1902 and went on to become a highly successful songwriting team.

Johnson became involved in New York politics. In 1904 he became treasurer of the city's Colored Republican Club, helping with the campaign to reelect Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency. On the recommendation of w. e. b. du bois, an African–American scholar and civil rights leader, Johnson was named U.S. consul to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, in 1906. Two years later he was appointed consul to Corinto, Nicaragua. He remained in that position until 1913, when he resigned. Johnson believed that the election of woodrow wilson, a Democrat, to the presidency, as well as significant racial prejudice, would interfere with his advancement in the consular service. In 1910 he married Grace Nail. The couple had no children.

Johnson returned to New York and in 1914 became an editorialist and columnist at the New York Age newspaper. Two years later he was offered a position as field secretary for the NAACP, which was founded in 1909 to improve the situation of African Americans. In that office Johnson traveled widely and did much to help the NAACP grow from nine thousand members in 1916 to ninety thousand in 1920. Under Johnson's direction the number of branches multiplied rapidly as well. In the South, where NAACP activity had been weak, the number of branches increased from 3 to 131. Johnson also spoke widely on the subject of racial discrimination, and he organized NAACP protests. In 1917 he coordinated a silent march in New York to protest Lynching of African Americans and other forms of racial oppression. Throughout his tenure at the NAACP, he remained committed to keeping it an interracial organization, seeking the membership and aid of whites as well as blacks.

By 1920 Johnson had risen to executive secretary of the NAACP, the organization's highest leadership position. Under his guidance the NAACP publicized the continued lynching of African Americans, which the organization estimated had caused the death of three thousand people between 1889 and 1919. Johnson directed the NAACP's support of the 1921 Dyer antilynching bill (which did not become law), Labor Union movements, and policies to improve living and working conditions for African Americans. In addition, Johnson issued an influential report on the U.S. occupation of Haiti occurring at that time. Furthermore, Johnson was a highly successful fund-raiser. Johnson's leadership greatly increased the NAACP's influence on U.S. law. He helped expand the organization's campaigns to end laws and practices that segregated African Americans and denied them basic freedoms such as the right to vote. Under Johnson's leadership the NAACP successfully argued Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536, 47 S. Ct. 446, 71 L. Ed. 759 (1927), before the Supreme Court. The decision held that a whites-only Democratic Party primary in Texas was unconstitutional, and marked a significant step toward establishing equal voting rights for African Americans.

In 1930 Johnson resigned from the NAACP to become a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University, in Nashville. Johnson's writings include The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1913), a novel; three volumes of poetry; Black Manhattan (1930), a history of African Americans in New York; Along This Way (1933), an autobiography; and Negro Americans, What Now? (1934), a treatise on the situation of African Americans. He edited three influential anthologies: The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), and The Second Book of American Negro Spirituals (1926), the last two with his brother.

"The dwarfing, warping, distorting influence which operates upon each and every coloured man in the United States … forces [him] to take his outlook on all things, not from the view-point of a citizen, or man, or even a human being, but from the view-point of a coloured man."
—James Weldon Johnson

Johnson received much recognition during his lifetime, including honorary degrees from Atlanta University and Howard University and the NAACP's Spingarn Medal (1925). He was killed in a car accident in Wiscasset, Maine, on June 26, 1938.

Further readings

Fleming, Robert E. 1987. James Weldon Johnson. Boston: Twayne.

Johnson, James Weldon. 2000. Along This Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson. New York: Da Capo Press.

Levy, Eugene. 1982. "James Weldon Johnson and the Development of the NAACP." Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century. Edited by John H. Franklin. Urbana, Ill.: Univ. of Illinois Press.

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