Johnny Jackson Jr. in 1991.
There aren’t many first-generation civil rights leaders left in New Orleans, and we lost another one Jan. 24 when former City Councilman and state Rep. Johnny Jackson Jr. died after a battle with cancer at the age of 74.
A tireless advocate for civil and human rights his entire life, Jackson was a consummate activist who reluctantly entered public life after serving as a community organizer in the Desire-Florida neighborhoods of New Orleans’ hardscrabble Ninth Ward.
Jackson grew up in Desire and knew its people and its struggles first hand. He served as director of the Desire Community Center during a 1970 standoff between New Orleans cops and local members of the Black Panther Party, who used the center that Jackson led to offer breakfast and tutoring programs for children, according to a story in The Advocate
The next year, black voters in New Orleans saw their first real opportunity to elect one of their own in the state House of Representatives district that included Desire. Jackson was recruited by the nascent Ninth Ward political organization SOUL to run for the seat.
“Johnny was reluctant to run,” recalled SOUL chairman Don Hubbard, another first-generation civil rights leader. Hubbard served as Jackson’s campaign manager for that first legislative run. “He didn’t think he was up to it. He thought he was too young. The folks in SOUL told him, ‘Who else could do it? You’d be representing one of the poorest districts in Louisiana.’
“No one else had feeling for the district like Johnny had,” Hubbard added. “And he never, ever blinked as to where he came from. Above all, Johnny genuinely cared for the people of his district. He wasn’t just a guy who just ran for office. … Nobody’s problems were too small for Johnny to try to deal with. Even if it came down to somebody complaining about not having their garbage picked up, he would chase down a garbage can if that’s what it took. I doubt we’ll ever have another Johnny Jackson.”
When Jackson was elected to the House in 1971, he became only the third black House member, along with the late Dutch Morial and the late Dorothy Mae Taylor. He was a co-founder of the Legislative Black Caucus, which remains a powerful force in the state House and Senate. He served in the House until 1986, when he won a seat on the New Orleans City Council representing New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward and Desire-Florida.
Jackson’s legislative colleagues remember him as a man with a gentle demeanor but the heart of a warrior.
“We worked together as delegates to the 1973 convention to rewrite the state’s constitution and collaborated on many legislative issues over the years,” said state Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, a longtime House colleague of Jackson’s. “Johnny was dedicated to his community with an eye to providing economic opportunity and equality for all. The bottom line is he fought for people, for families and for a better state of Louisiana.”
Former state Rep. Ron Faucheux, who also represented part of the city’s Ninth Ward, remembers Jackson as “an effective legislator who represented the people of his district very well. While he was collegial and easy to work with, when he took a stand in support of his district, he was very passionate. Everyone respected that.”
Jackson left the Legislature after winning a seat on the council in the 1986 citywide elections that also saw Sidney Barthelemy win the mayor’s race. Barthelemy, a former state senator, had served in the Legislature with Jackson and came to know him even better when the two were at City Hall.
“Johnny was the consummate advocate for the Desire community,” Barthelemy said. “I worked with him from the beginning of my career when I was director of city Welfare Department and he was a community organizer in Desire. We both started with the antipoverty program. In the Legislature, we worked on bills together. … Johnny literally fought for the people in his community. He was a great, great advocate for the Desire community and all his constituents.”
First City Court Constable Lambert Boissiere Jr. served on the council with Jackson, who remained on the council until 1994. Boissiere said Jackson “always strived to be the conscience of the council in terms of how our decisions would impact people. We might disagree on the means we would use to accomplish a particular end, but he always was most concerned about how it would impact people.”
The soft-spoken Jackson never shied from a fight on behalf of his constituents, but he found himself embroiled in controversy when it was disclosed that he gave himself a Tulane University legislative scholarship. He used it to earn a master’s degree in social work. He later expressed regret, telling The Times-Picayune
, “The prevailing ethics at the time were such that it was not illegal or unethical for me to take the scholarship [but] it’s not something that I would ever do again.”
He was far from the only legislator to draw fire for his handling of Tulane scholarships, and like many others he paid a political price for it. He lost bids for an at-large council seat in 1994 and for clerk of Criminal District Court in 2003. Despite the losses, friends say Jackson maintained his congenial presence in public and in private.
Jackson remained active in civic and community affairs throughout his life. He was a board member of Total Community Action Inc., the New Orleans East Economic Development Foundation, the Desire-Florida Area Community Council, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, WWOZ Radio and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.
“He always had a smile on his face,” said Hubbard. “And he was never impressed with titles. When somebody called him ‘Representative,’ he would say, ‘Aw, man, I’m just Johnny Jr.’ But when his community needed him to do the impossible for his people, he did it.”
Visitations will be from 4-7 p.m. Friday, February 2 at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, 3320 Louisa St., and from 8-10 a.m. Saturday, February 3, at Beacon Light International Baptist Cathedral, 1937 Mirabeau Ave., followed by funeral services at 10 a.m.
The Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club will escort Jackson by jazz procession to a repast at Zulu’s Roy Glapion Reception Hall, 730 N. Broad St. Funeral arrangements are being handled by D.W. Rhodes Funeral Home, 3933 Washington Ave.