Arthur Johnson was praised for his integrity, loyalty and commitment to Detroit. / 2003 photo by KIRTHMON F. DOZIER/Detroit Free Pres
A crowd of movers and shakers was exiting an event at the White House during the Clinton administration. Among them was Wayne State University President Irving Reid.
As Reid was leaving, civil rights leader and Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan called out, "When you get back to Detroit, be sure to tell Arthur Johnson hello!"
"He didn't say the mayor," Reid recalled. "He didn't say the governor. He said tell Arthur Johnson. I think that speaks volumes about who Arthur Johnson was. He was a quiet man of enormous strength."
Human rights activist, educator and arts advocate Arthur Johnson died at home Tuesday after an extended illness, prompted in part by the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease, said Trevor Coleman, family spokesman and former Free Press editorial writer. Johnson was 85; he would have turned 86 on Saturday.
"When I came to Detroit there were three men I looked up to: Coleman Young, Damon Keith and Art Johnson," said Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, upon learning of Johnson's passing. "They were the kind of role models who represent what we expect in strong black men. They were sensitive to the issues facing our people and weren't afraid to stand up and speak out.
"Whether it was leading the NAACP, Wayne State or in the arts community, Art was always there," Bing said. "He had a tremendous positive impact on this city, and will be greatly missed."
In recent years, Johnson was best known as a university administrator. He retired as senior vice president of Wayne State University in 1995 after 23 years in various high-ranking posts.
But his impact was perhaps greatest as a stalwart soldier in the battle to end racial discrimination in housing, public education, restaurants and other public places in Detroit -- the adopted home he came to love and fight tirelessly for after moving to the city from Georgia in 1950.
He was born in Americus, Ga., and educated at Morehouse College and Atlanta University, both in Atlanta. Johnson was a trusted adviser to Mayor Coleman A. Young and a comrade of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Johnson and King graduated in 1948 from Morehouse, a historically black college.
"Art rose from poverty to prominence, largely on the strength of his intellect, integrity, determination and compassion for all people," said longtime friend Judge Damon Keith of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Johnson was a "man of absolute integrity, loyalty and commitment to this city and community," Keith said.
"There was nothing too small or too big for Art to step forward if he thought it was in the best interest of this city and the constituents he served," said former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer. "And he was one of the most levelheaded people you ever want to see. His demeanor was such that he was never loud or boisterous; he was always very measured and effective."
Archer said Johnson's memoir, "Race and Remembrance" (Wayne State University Press, $24.95), published in 2008, ought to be required reading for all Detroiters.
"It is a must-read for our young people because it gives a flavor of the challenges many black people faced living in the city of Detroit, not to mention his own personal challenges; yet he went on to triumph and make this place a better place for all of us," Archer said.
Former Detroit City Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel described Johnson as "one of the lions of Detroit's civil rights movement. ... His own life story showed that you can overcome the awful viciousness of blatant racism."
The national NAACP recruited Johnson to Detroit in 1950 to become its executive secretary. As the organization's top staff person, Johnson held the post for 14 years. Under his leadership, the organization became one of the most respected in the nation.
He was president of the Detroit Branch NAACP in 1987-93.
Johnson was one of the creators of the Freedom Fund Dinner, which continues to be one of the largest fund-raising events of any civil rights group.
"He was a man of high integrity and commitment to civil rights," said civic leader Mary Blackmon, a former board member of the Detroit branch. "He epitomized what a leader should do in helping to make the NAACP responsive to the community, as well as fighting on behalf of the community as a whole. He used whatever resources he had to elevate the mission of the NAACP.
"And he was able to do things others couldn't do because people respected him so much."Johnson also served as deputy director of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. In 1966, he was appointed assistant superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools, becoming the first African American to hold the post.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said: “Arthur Johnson’s passing is a deep personal loss for me and my wife, Barbara. While his manner was gentle, his drive to achieve justice was strong and effective. He was a close personal friend of ours, and a great neighbor to us in Green Acres in Northwest Detroit during the 1960s and ’70s. I also had the privilege of working closely with him when I was the general counsel for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and he was the deputy director. His work for the NAACP was legendary. We will miss him terribly, as will all who knew him and all who strive for justice.”
A huge fan of the arts, Johnson viewed opening the arts to the masses as an extension of his civil rights work.
He was on the board of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and pushed for diversity within the orchestra on stage and among concertgoers.
He encouraged the DSO to perform works of African-American composers, and encouraged the organization to hire African-American musicians and conductors.
"Arthur Johnson, for many years, has been the catalyst for accessibility and inclusion for the entire community to the full breadth of the arts experience in Detroit," said Wayne Brown, director of music and opera for the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C.
Brown was a DSO administrator in the 1970s.
"He was a real champion for inclusion before the establishment of formalized programs that exist throughout the country today," Brown said. "He wanted the orchestra to be a resource more broadly embraced by the entire community.
"Through his leadership, the Detroit community has been able to benefit from the arts in ways that are not obvious," Brown said. "He had a persistent drive to advance the arts. I wish I could clone Arthur Johnson so we would have that voice and passion for the arts all over the country."
Peter Cummings, chairman emeritus of the DSO, called Johnson "one of the most inspiring and loving people I've ever met."
He credited Johnson with being the impetus for the Classical Roots series -- an annual concert in February in which the DSO pays tribute to African-American composers.
"A lot of the vitality of the orchestra resulted from Arthur acting as the African-American conscience of the institution," Cummings said.
Cummings recalled being at a retreat where several people were discussing the progress of the DSO in including African-American music and musicians.
"I remember Art put his hand up to speak -- and when Arthur speaks, people stop and listen. He said, 'We're still not doing enough.' And that was Arthur to me. He was always saying, we can do more. We can do better whether it's in the role of African Americans in the orchestra, the role of the Festival of the Arts in Midtown or for the City of Detroit. He always believed we needed to and could do more."
In Johnson's book, he wrote that one of the accomplishments he is most proud of is the creation of the Detroit Festival of the Arts, which annually presents a variety of art free in the city's Cultural Center.
"It's because of Art's affection for the festival that I made it a part of my inaugural activities," said Reid, who became president of Wayne State in 1998.
"I always felt the hot breath of Arthur Johnson on my neck as I was making decisions," Reid said. "He became the conscience of the university for so many of us who he taught that serving the community was not just our mission, but our destiny. He was never asking anything for himself; it was always what could we do for others, for the city, and the broader Detroit community."
Johnson is survived by his wife of 31 years, Chacona, and three children, Wendell Johnson, Brian Johnson and Angela Sewell. He was preceded in death by three sons, Averell, Carl and David.
Funeral arrangements are pending at Swanson Funeral Home of Detroit.
Staff writer Naomi R. Patton contributed to this report.