Johnson, Harry E.
Harry E. Johnson
Attorney Harry E. Johnson has made preserving African-American heritage an important part of his career. Not content with simply building a successful law career, he has also dedicated his time to a variety of projects to empower black youth, and to ensure the legacy of one of the most important architects of the 1960s civil rights movement. As president of the Washington, DC, Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, Johnson continues to work to place a tribute to the civil rights leader among the other important memorials in the nation's capitol.
Johnson was born on September 29, 1954, in the Mississippi River port city of St. Louis, Missouri. He learned the value of civil service early from his parents, Sara L. Pegues Johnson, a secretary at the St. Louis Board of Elections, and James J. Johnson, a police officer and tax collector. Young Harry was an active and industrious young man who worked at a variety of part time jobs from the time he was eleven years old. He delivered newspapers, sold drinks at the St. Louis Opera's outdoor concerts, and waited tables in restaurants, not because his family needed the extra money, but simply because he enjoyed being productive.
His parents divorced when he was nine, and Johnson was further influenced towards ideals of service to the community by the supportive men around him. Mentors such as James Buckley, a family friend, and Nathaniel Jackson, a neighborhood coach, always seemed to have time and attention to give to the young men in their lives. The values that he learned from them ensured that Harry Johnson would grow up to be such a man himself.
The Johnsons were Roman Catholic, and young Harry went to Catholic schools for most of his education, beginning with his early years at the small parochial school of St. Barbara's. When it was time to enter high school, he applied and was accepted at Christian Brothers College (CBC), a rigorous Catholic military academy. Though CBC was demanding, Johnson enjoyed the challenge, and during his high school years, he made the decision to attend college. With the help of financial aid, he went south to New Orleans to enter Xavier University of Louisiana, an historically black Catholic college established in 1925.
Johnson earned his bachelor's degree in political science at Xavier in 1977, and then returned home to St. Louis, where he attended graduate school at Washington University. He was pursuing a master's degree in public administration when he decided to go to law school. A law degree would not only help him if he decided on a political career; it would allow him the independence of working for himself. He attended Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law. After completing his education, Johnson decided to stay in Texas and set up his private law practice in Houston. In addition to working as an attorney, he also worked as an adjunct, or part time, lecturer at Thurgood Marshall.
While a student at Xavier, Johnson had joined Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest black fraternity in the United States. Greek-letter fraternities and sororities, or brotherhood and sisterhood organizations, for white students had been first created as the new nation was forming in 1776. Fraternal clubs offered support and promoted academic excellence among their members.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, only a few courageous African Americans were able to obtain higher education. Many of these attended historically black colleges and universities, while others went to the few white institutions that granted them admittance. It was seven such students, who entered Ithaca, New York's Cornell University in 1905, who founded Alpha Phi Alpha. They saw that the isolation and discrimination that many black students experienced made a successful college career almost impossible, and they hoped that supportive national organizations could enable more African Americans to graduate.
Alpha Phi Alpha was followed by other national black Greek-letter fraternities and sororities, forming a national network of encouragement and cooperation for black students. In fact, this black Greek system has continued to offer career and social support to its members long after graduation. Many African Americans remain proud members of their fraternities and sororities throughout their lives. Along with providing support to members and promoting academic excellence, organizations such as Alpha Phi Alpha also sponsor a wide variety of community and social service programs.
Like many members, Harry Johnson remained an active member of his fraternity, and, from 2001 through 2004, he took a leadership role as national president of Alpha Phi Alpha. During his presidency, Johnson introduced a number of creative programs to build the fraternity's active membership and to develop its relationship to the community through mentorship and volunteering. He also helped coordinate the efforts of the black Greek system by participating in the National Pan Hellenic Council of Presidents, which includes the leadership of all nine historically black fraternities and sororities.
When Johnson left the presidency of Alpha Phi Alpha in 2004, it was to devote more energy to a project that was very near to the fraternity's heart. In 1984, one year after the establishment of the Martin Luther King national holiday, members of Alpha Phi Alpha had begun to work towards the creation of a national monument honoring the murdered civil rights leader. King was not only one of the most influential and visible leaders of the civil rights movement, but he had also been a member of Alpha Phi Alpha since attending graduate school at Boston University during the early 1950s. The members of Alpha Phi Alpha believed that a memorial honoring King's accomplishments and belief in non-violent resistance would be appropriate as the first African-American national monument.
It took many years of fundraising and lobbying, but in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a bill proposing the monument, and in 1998 both houses of Congress passed a resolution authorizing four acres on the National Mall in Washington, DC, for the construction of the monument.
While serving as president of Alpha Phi Alpha, Johnson became dedicated to the creation of the memorial, and when he left the presidency of the fraternity, it was to take on the job of president and chief executive officer of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation. While still conducting his private law practice, Johnson continues to develop creative projects to publicize and raise funds for the memorial. Groundbreaking for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is set for the end of 2006, and the monument, which will sit between the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials on the National Mall, is scheduled to be completed in 2008.
At a Glance …
Born Harry Edward Johnson on September 29, '1954, in St. Louis, Missouri; married Karen, 1980; children: Jennifer, Harry, Jr. and Nicholas. Education: Xavier University, BA, political science, 1977; Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas Southern University, JD, 1986.
Career: Private law practice, 1986–; Thurgood Marshall School of Law, Texas Southern University, adjunct professor of law, 2000–04; Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, president and chief executive officer, 2005–.
Selected memberships: National Bar Association; American Bar Association; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Alpha Phi Alpha, national president, 2001–2004; Big Brothers and Big Sisters, National Board of Directors, 2001–.
Addresses: Office—7457 Harwin Drive, Suite 390, Houston, TX 77036.
Brown, Tamara L. with Gregory S. Parks and Clarenda M. Phillips, editors, African-American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision, University of Kentucky Press, 2005.
Jet, December 4, 2000, p. 46.
Oakland Post, February 20, 2002, p. 4.
Sacramento Observer, November 24-November 30, 2005, p. G1.
"Executive Staff," Build the Dream, www.mlkmemo-rial.org/site/c.hkIUL9MVJxE/b.1190565/k.A274/Executive_Staff.htm (March 15, 2006).
"Harry E. Johnson, Esquire," GM, www.gm.com/company/gmability/community/mlk/news/bios/johnson_bio.html (March 15, 2006).
"Interview with Harry E. Johnson," Tavis Smiley Show: PBS, www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/archive/200502/20050210_transcript.html (March 15, 2006).
"Meet Some of the MLK 'Dream Builders': Keeping the Dream Alive for the Ages," Onyx Magazine Online, www.onyxmagazine.com/aspx/feature_mlkmemorial.aspx (March 15, 2006).
Information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Harry E. Johnson on March 20, 2006.
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