“It is with great sadness that I must acknowledge and accept the passing of a man who has meant so much to me personally. Senator Leroy Johnson received his bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College in 1949 and his master’s degree from Atlanta University in 1951. Senator Johnson had a natural gift of gab and dreamed of becoming a lawyer. He often thought of applying to the University of Georgia Law School but racial politics, at the time, suggested this was impossible. Consequently, in 1957, he instead earned a law degree from North Carolina Central University. Black students were not finally admitted to the University of Georgia Law School until 1961.
In 1957, Senator Johnson became the first African-American to work for the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office which was known as the Solicitor General’s Office at that time. Senator Johnson was more than likely the first African-American to serve in a District Attorney’s Office in the history of the State of Georgia.
While working a full-time shift as an Investigator, Johnson studied for the Georgia Bar in his spare time. The Bar presented a tall task for Johnson who took it eight times before he was certified as a lawyer. He once told me, with his patented smile and grandmother’s wit,
“I passed it eight times, but they only gave me credit for the last one.”
After passing the bar, Senator Johnson wanted to become an Assistant District Attorney. The loquacious Johnson became a folk legend in his own community because of his extensive knowledge of current events and criminal law. He was so endearing to the African-American community that many referred to him as “the other DA.” Again, due to the racial climate of that period, Senator Johnson was never appointed as an Assistant District Attorney.
After failing to achieve his dream of becoming the state’s first African-American Assistant District Attorney, Senator Johnson left the DA’s Office in 1962. African-Americans did not become Assistant District Attorneys in Fulton County until now Federal Judge Clarence Cooper and retired Fulton County Superior Court Judge Isaac Jenrette were appointed some 14 years later in 1975. Clearly, Senator Johnson was a man far ahead of his time.
In February 2017, the State Bar of Georgia awarded Senator Johnson its highest recognition, the Lifetime Achievement Award. During a private moment at that ceremony, it was my pleasure to recognize Senator Johnson as an Honorary Fulton County Assistant District Attorney, the only occasion in which my office has bestowed such recognition upon an individual.
Senator Johnson remained a trailblazer throughout his life following his election to the Georgia Senate in 1962. He was the first African-American elected after Reconstruction. Senator Johnson worked to desegregate the Georgia Capitol during his time in the Senate. Senator Johnson also played an essential role in reviving the boxing career of Muhammad Ali after the fighter was stripped of his license due to his unwillingness to comply with the United States’ Military Draft Policy. Senator Johnson worked to secure a fighting location for Ali in Georgia in 1970. Ali was a fighter, and Senator Johnson recognized that quality within himself, and he made sure the greatest boxer of all time was given the chance to fight again.
Senator Johnson was a fighter too. He fought to pass the Georgia Bar, he fought to become a prosecutor, he fought for his seat in the Georgia Senate, he battled for his family, his community, and his country. That is how I will remember Senator Leroy Johnson, and it is how I hope Metro Atlanta will remember this great hero. As District Attorney’s and elected officials, we all owe Senator Johnson a significant debt of gratitude.
As such, the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office is officially creating the “Leroy Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award” which will be handed out annually to an Assistant District Attorney who exemplifies the qualities that made Senator Johnson a pillar in our community, our state, and our country. It is my sincere hope that this honor will live on far beyond Senator Johnson’s passing and will serve as an example to those within the criminal justice system of what we all should aspire to be someday.”
Paul L. Howard, Jr.
Fulton County District Attorney
Atlanta Judicial Circuit