Johnson, Jr., Harvey 1947(?)–
Harvey Johnson, Jr. 1947(?)–
Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi
In 1997, Harvey Johnson, Jr. was elected the first African American mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. The capital city of Mississippi, Jackson has 200,000 residents, of whom about 60 percent are African American. During the civil rights years, the city gained infamy as the place where civil rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down, and where campaigners were routinely beaten, falsely arrested, and murdered.
According to Kevin Chappell, writing in Ebony, Johnson’s election was a substantial step in the healing process: “In a city—still considered by some to be one of America’s most racially divided towns—and in a state with a steep history of bigotry and intolerance, Johnson’s mayoral victory in June served as a resounding notice that there is indeed a New South desperately trying to live down a stubborn reputation that has dogged it for at least the last 30 years.” Johnson, who was a teenager during the tumultuous civil rights era, remembers those years well. Still, while Mississippi has significant racial problems, he told Kevin Chappell of Ebony, “…so do other states. We are improving as far as understanding each other. We have made progress, but there continues to be more progress that has to be made.”
Johnson was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the only child of a garbage collector and a cleaner. “My mother and father were older when I was born,” he told Ebony, “so I remember always being 50 years younger than the people I was around.” After graduating from high school, Johnson attended Tennessee State University. There he met Kathy Ezell, who would become his wife. Johnson then pursued graduate studies at the University of Cincinnati. He had initially planned to stay in Cincinnati and go to law school, but was persuaded to come back to Mississippi at the urging of his father. According to Ebony, Johnson’s father told him, “Boy, you ought to go to Jackson to get a job.”
Johnson returned to Mississippi in 1972, where he found a job as a community planner in the governor’s office, even though he had no experience in the field. In his wide-ranging career, Johnson has been as a political science professor at Jackson State University, a state tax commissioner, a commissioner on the powerful Mississippi Gaming Board, and a political commentator on a local television station.
In 1993, Johnson made an unsuccessful run for mayor.
Born c. 1947 in Vicksburg, MS; son of a garbage collector and a cleaner; married Kathy Ezell; children: Harvey III, Sharla. Education: Tennessee State University, University of Cincinnati.
Career: Jackson State University, professor; Mississippi Gaming Board, commissioner; City of Jackson, Mississippi, mayor, 1997-.
Addresses: Home—Jackson, MS. Office — P.O. Box 17, Jackson, MS, 39205.
Undaunted, he tried again four years later, running on a platform of racial and economic unity. A Democrat, Johnson upset the incumbent, Kane Ditto, to earn the right to face the Republican candidate, Charlotte Reeves, who hoped to become the city’s first female mayor. His opponents tried to dig up dirt on him, Johnson joked to Kevin Chappell of Ebony, “but the handles on their shovels weren’t long enough.” He was elected in June of 1997 with an overwhelming 70 percent of the vote. “We have come a mighty long way in this city,” Johnson told a crowd of cheering supporters on election night (quoted as saying in the New York Times). “We’re going to have to forge some common ground in this city.”
Johnson told Kevin Chappell of Ebony, that his plans for Jackson included creating a strong business class to provide quality jobs for the city’s residents, increasing the tax base, and providing money to improve services in the city. He also wanted to foster the African American business community, hoping to change Jackson’s identity and bring new respect to the city. Johnson planned to model the success of Atlanta’s African American mayor, Maynard Jackson, who helped to transform that city into the capital of the New South. “As mayor, I want to be known as a man of integrity who conducts his affairs in a dignified way, one who is able to bring together a lot of people to build the city and make it a shining example of how a great city is run,” Johnson told Ebony. “There can’t be a lot of rhetoric. There has to be action. There has to be more than just talk from a black guy in a suit calling himself mayor. And I’m planning to do that.” He also hoped to change the reputation of his home state. “Because you come from Mississippi, you are somehow considered backwards, and that’s not the case,” Johnson was quoted as saying in Ebony. “The state gets a bad rap given its history, but I hope my election gives people here something to be proud of.”
Johnson’s tenure as mayor has not come without criticism. Buddy Bynum, writing in Mississippi Business Journal, faulted Johnson for not cooperating with the county government, and for welcoming controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan to Jackson. “Coming into his own as mayor of the state’s largest and in some ways most complex city, Johnson seems to be facing more problems than solutions,” Bynum wrote. “His problems seem to have gotten worse, not better.”
In his 1999 state of the city address, called “Building the Best of the New South,” Johnson touted his accomplishments since his election two years earlier. The foundation of his plan was improving basic city services, “such as picking up trash, maintaining streets, repairing a crumbling infrastructure, enhancing efficiency and customer service, and putting our fiscal house in order,” Johnson told the city council, according to a transcript of the speech. Johnson also detailed his efforts to revitalize the city’s downtown, and to bring investment into Jackson. “The city of Jackson is experiencing tremendous business growth,” he was quoted as saying in the transcript. “Estimated capital investment from business growth and expansion within the city is just over $12 million, and brings with it an estimated 291 jobs.”
Johnson’s plans for the rest of his term included improvements to the city’s infrastructure, programs for youth, and crime-fighting initiatives. He also touted the city’s first “millennium activity,” a Civil Rights Driving Tour of Jackson, which would acknowledge the important civil rights events that happened there. “The achievements of this past year,” Johnson was quoted as saying in the transcript, “have provided the foundation and momentum needed to build the Best of the New South as we move into the next century.”
Ebony, August 1997, p. 76.
New York Times, June 5, 1997.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from “Building the Best of the New South,” the state of the city address by Mayor Harvey Johnson, Jr. Available at www.city.jackson.ms.us/Govt/cityaddress.html.
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