The Untold Story of the Strategist for Atlanta’s Black Political Leadership

Dr. Tobe Johnson, a native of Birmingham, first came to Morehouse College in 1946 as a teenager. He returned to graduate in 1954 after serving in the U.S. Air Force, and in 1963, earned a doctorate from Columbia University. Photo by Bruce Morton, Atlanta City Council Office of Communications.

Dr. Tobe Johnson is a guiding light of Atlanta’s history — one that may not have shined as brightly as others in the public eye, but nonetheless profoundly shaped the city and its leadership.

He served as an adviser to key political leaders, including former Mayor Maynard Jackson, and as a professor and mentor to countless Morehouse alums.

Civil rights triumphs and the groundwork laid by community leaders paved the way for Johnson to work with African American elected officials and aspiring politicians. Photo by Bruce Morton, Atlanta City Council Office of Communications.

Johnson grew up in a predominately African American, working-class community in Birmingham. He attended Morehouse at age 16, later leaving school to take a job at a steel plant back in Alabama.

He then joined the Air Force, serving in Japan, but returned to Morehouse in his mid-20s to receive his undergraduate degree in 1954. He later attended Columbia University in New York, where he earned his Ph.D. in public law and government. Following his degree, he was recruited back to Morehouse to teach by the legendary Dr. Benjamin Mays, ultimately retiring in 2018.

After being at Morehouse for 59 years, he set a record as the longest-serving faculty member in the college’s history. Each step of the journey gave him a stronger knowledge of how institutions work and a broader sense of the world around him.

As a young man, Johnson graduated from college right as the Supreme Court was deciding Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that established racial segregation in public schools as unconstitutional. This decision was an early influence on his views about political structures and long-term change.

“I remember how gleeful all of us were in the class,” Johnson said. “We went out and thought things were going to change overnight. It was our conception of the world that when white folks spoke — when the Court spoke — that’s the way things were going to go.”

Progress was more sluggish than expected. While the decision paved the way for integration and was a victory of the Civil Rights Movement, many Southern political leaders resisted attempts to desegregate, ensuring that integration moved slowly. Fortunately, other civil rights victories followed such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Johnson said these triumphs and the groundwork laid by leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1950s and early 1960s allowed him to work with African American elected officials and aspiring politicians in the late 1960s. By then, African Americans were being elected to the City’s Board of Aldermen (now the City Council), as well as the Georgia General Assembly.

These changes paved the way for Johnson to join Jackson in his run for mayor in 1973. He was one of his initial supporters and staff recruits, serving as a researcher and issues chairperson for the campaign. Although Jackson was an outsider, he had a real knack for retail politics, Johnson said.

“He was a smooth, very impressive, very convincing person early on. He had a natural ability to talk to people and to convince them,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s work alongside Jackson gave him an added layer of knowledge about politics, especially the interplay between the mayor, the City Council and the business community. He imparted this knowledge of how these political relationships work as part of his campaign efforts and on the many young minds he taught at Morehouse who later shaped the future of Atlanta.

As an adviser for campaigns, including Maynard Jackson’s run for mayor in 1973, Johnson helped shape the city’s political landscape. Photo by Bruce Morton, Atlanta City Council Office of Communications.

C.T. Martin, who had a 27-year career as the Atlanta City Council’s District 10 representative, said Johnson is one of the most brilliant political minds that he knows and that his impact on the city has been immense.

“He served as an integral adviser for me going back to my first run and he knew the issues forward and backward,” Martin said. “He’s also touched the lives of so many students at Morehouse. He had a giant impact there and his ability to both challenge and develop his students is unparalleled. He guided Atlanta and so many of our students through some of the most significant points in our city’s history and in doing so built a truly unmatched legacy.”

Post 1 At-Large Atlanta City Council member Michael Julian Bond, who attended Morehouse and is a family friend of Johnson, noted that Johnson mentored every major political figure who is an alum of Morehouse for the past six decades.

“Dr. Johnson has strongly influenced them so that they can take what they learned at Morehouse and use it in their own public service,” Bond said. “You can imagine how many lives that he’s touched.”

Dr. Johnson was honored by the Atlanta City Council in 2019 for his contributions to the city and his impact on students at Morehouse College. Photo by Bruce Morton, Atlanta City Council Office of Communications.

Georgia State Rep. El-Mahdi Holly, a Morehouse alum, said Johnson’s influence made students and the political science department more rigorous and competitive.

“It was knowing that he helped to shape the minds of those that we so often saw as leaders and that he was our connection to them,” Holly said about Johnson’s legacy and importance. “He made sure to impart his wisdom on us as students, but also on the staff to ensure that we could compete with the rest of the world.”

Theodis Pace, staff director for the Atlanta City Council, said every political science major who went to Morehouse from the 1960s to the 2000s has their own story about Johnson. He added that as a professor, Johnson made his students think about the larger context of ideas and to consider other people’s opinions, which helped them learn more about themselves.

Winfield Murray, a former deputy chief of staff for Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms who currently teaches constitutional law and moot court at Morehouse, said although he wasn’t Johnson’s student during his time at the college, he knew he wanted to follow in his footsteps.

“His students have gone on from the lessons he taught to be able to get into graduate schools and law schools that they wouldn’t dream of before,” Murray said. “From there, they have gone out into their communities, whether back in Atlanta or on the West Coast or Midwest, to become change agents in their own community and that stems from having an instructor and a professor like Tobe Johnson.”

By Michael Ulmer
Atlanta City Council Office of Communications
mmulmer@atlantaga.gov

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Atlanta City Council

Atlanta City Council

Information from the Atlanta City Council