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Column: Bob Johnson, Orange County civil rights pioneer, dies at 88

Bob Johnson is shown in an undated photo.
Bob Johnson, shown in an undated photo, is the former head of the Fair Housing Council of Orange County and a scholar on Black history in Orange County. Johnson passed away April 18 at age 88.
(Johnson family)

I figured Bob Johnson was just a kindly gadfly when we first met in 2009. After all, who requests a meeting with a reporter to talk about history — specifically, Orange County history, a subject as obscure and unloved as the study of carpet?

He was tall and lanky, with a full head of white hair swept to the side and frameless spectacles. Johnson told me over lunch that he liked my articles about the hidden histories of O.C. and urged me to dig deeper. As a starting point, he handed me a book he co-edited, and might I review it?

Thank God I actually cracked it open instead of leaving it on a bus bench.

“A Different Shade of Orange: Voices of Orange County, California, Black Pioneers” collected testimonials from Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History and was the first tome of its kind. It was a bold move to highlight stories of Black people in a region that remains the only major metropolitan area in the United States with a Black population of less than 5% — an abysmal 2.1%, per 2019 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Johnson hailed the subjects of his book for having “the grit and courage to move to Orange County and deal with being black in a white milieu.”

I reviewed the book.

We regularly kept in touch in the decade that followed. He called me about once a month, showed up to my office every couple of months and emailed me constantly as he slowly revealed the racist core of my homeland like a Gnostic teacher training an apprentice.

He’s the one who told me, for instance, that Henry W. Head, the assembly member who filed the papers that officially split Orange County from Los Angeles County, was a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan under Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. Who dug up the signed membership papers of Sam Jernigan and Jesse Elliott, two Orange County Klan members in the 1920s who went on to become O.C. sheriffs. Who found newspaper clippings about a World War II-era incident in which Fullerton residents effectively kicked a group of Jamaican laborers out of the city because of their Blackness.

Johnson rarely talked about himself, though. I found out from others that he was a civil rights legend. He and his wife, Lois, helped nab racist landlords and apartment managers by getting approved to rent an apartment or buy a home right after Black couples were denied. He was a longtime board member of the Fair Housing Council of OC and a founder of the Orange County Community Housing Corporation, which builds apartments and homes for low-income people.

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He’d allow only two things about himself: his love of basketball and a work-in-progress that was a full history of Black Orange County, from its first Black resident (an Anaheim barber named Drew) to the activists of today.

Sadly, Johnson did not live to see the book’s release. The longtime Tustin resident died Sunday of Parkinson’s disease, leaving behind his wife of 65 years, three children and three grandchildren. He was 88.

“Bob is the holiest man I ever met in my life,” said Robert Slayton, my old Chapman University history professor. He and Johnson were part of a group of friends who met monthly for dinner for more than 25 years. “His legacy in Orange County is clear. He just looked at the world and thought, ‘This is how it should be, and I’m going to work for it, not because I’m a great guy but because this is how it should be.’”

“Bob and my dad were these two white, middle-class engineers,” said Rusty Kennedy, the former head of the Orange County Human Relations Commission and whose father fought alongside Johnson for decades. “They didn’t really have to do anything to live a long comfortable life. But they put themselves on the line at a time when it wasn’t popular. He was a hero.”

Johnson was born in Chicago, and his family moved to Glendale when he was 9. That’s where he met Lois and where the two realized early on in their relationship that they didn’t like that Glendale was a sundown town — a municipality that didn’t allow Blacks to stay within city limits after sunset.

“They were raised in this little white world,” said their daughter, Karen. “All of my grandparents were incredibly prejudiced against Catholics, Jews, anyone of color. The injustice of things were just so wrong, they had to do something.”

After a stint in the Army, Bob and Lois moved to Tustin in 1961, a time when Orange County was the white-hot center of American suburban racism instead of the red embers of today. The young couple teamed up with white allies to help Orange County’s Black community fight discrimination in whatever way they could: protests, fundraisers, lawsuits. One of those cases, Reitman vs. Mulkey, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and overturned a California proposition that made it legal for landlords to reject prospective tenants based on race.

As O.C.'s demographics changed, he also worked on behalf of Latino residents and Vietnamese refugees.

“We’d go to a gathering, and if there was anyone of color, he’d talk to them and ask, ‘How can I help?’” Lois said. “Bob’s way of doing everything was moderation, but he was made of steel.”

Throughout his life, Johnson challenged his fellow whites to believe that racism existed.

“When you are involved personally, the problem takes on considerable more meaning,” he said in a 1970 letter to the editor published in the Tustin News. “We do have a problem.”

All along, Karen said he was there for his kids and grandchildren despite his hectic schedule. She remembered a loving father who played opera every Saturday while he helped to clean the house and took his family on three-week road trips across the United States in a station wagon.

“The strongest feeling I have about dad is, ‘What would Bob do?’” she said. “He’d tell us, ‘Always do the right thing.’ It gave us this moral grounding of what’s right and wrong and the courage to stick out your neck for others.”

Johnson kept an active schedule until Parkinson’s made it impossible and worked on his magnum opus as long as he could, finishing a first draft. Karen is exploring options about how to publish her dad’s final work. But before we hung up, I asked about her father’s love of basketball, which always seemed to me an unexpected passion for a man I always figured was as much of a nerd as me.

“He was the elbows guy,” Karen said with a laugh. “He was on the ground frequently, but he gave blows. For such a mild-mannered pacifist, he was vicious on the courts.”

Farewell, Bob. May we all follow your example and go through life seeking the hard-fought rebound instead of the flashy dunk.


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