The Rose Library has acquired the papers of Atlanta LGBTQ+ and human rights activist Winston Johnson. The collection includes correspondence, printed material, and photographs that document Johnson’s work with organizations like the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change and, in particular, the Human Rights Campaign.
“The Rose Library is proud to add Winston Johnson’s papers to our holdings that document the activism, culture, history, and politics of LGBTQ+ communities in Atlanta,” says Jennifer Gunter King, the Director of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. “His work for equity and justice fits with the broader story of activism the Rose Library seeks to document. The Johnson Papers are well situated among the Rose Library’s collections that reveal the interconnectedness of human rights work here in Atlanta.”
Johnson grew up in south Georgia and north Florida. He realized he was gay when he was 11 or 12. “I was suicidal for a short time after I turned 20,” he wrote to friends in 1995, “because I had not been prepared by life to accept who I was.” Luckily, two years later, he met Leon Allen, his life partner. It was, Johnson recalled, “the beginning of a really nice life.” They spent the next 43 years together until Allen’s death. “The most important role in my life,” Johnson wrote recently, “was caring for Leon the last 10 years of his life. I felt more alive at that time because I knew how important my efforts were for him. He died in 2006 and marriage equality came to Georgia in 2015.” Johnson’s relationship formed the foundation of his activism. He had the gift of making the personal political.
The couple moved to Atlanta in 1967 and, the next year, Johnson began a long career working for Eastern Airlines. It was in his role at Eastern he met Coretta Scott King at the airport, the day after Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. A long and warm friendship developed between them. Soon Johnson was volunteering at the Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Social Change, the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the United Negro College Fund. Those opportunities represented the extent of Johnson’s activism in the 1970s. It was a time of widespread homophobia in the country and especially in the South. Allen and Johnson remained in the closet because LGBTQ+ folks could lose their jobs, housing, and insurance for being out.
Because of these barriers, Johnson’s LGBTQ+ rights advocacy didn’t begin until the next decade. It started in 1985 when Johnson and Allen attended the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Fund Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. The HRC was the first federally authorized Political Action Committee “dedicated to the cause of lesbian and gay rights.” The dinner was an eye-opening experience for them. “We didn’t know gay people did anything like that,” Johnson remembered. They believed in the HRC’s work so strongly Johnson asked Mrs. King to join them the next year and, on September 27, 1986, she delivered the keynote address at the dinner, saying, “I am here to express my solidarity with the gay and lesbian movement.” “I truly believe,” Johnson wrote to a friend in 1995, Mrs. King’s “position gave others in the Civil Rights leadership the political cover they needed to ‘come out’ in support of our movement.”
Inspired by their experiences in New York City, Johnson and Allen joined twelve other local activists to create a steering committee to organize an HRC Fund event in Atlanta. On May 21, 1988, the first Human Rights Campaign Fund Southeastern Gala occurred downtown at the Marriott Marquis. The committee hoped to attract 200 attendees but that night 660 folks showed up. “The crowd was glittering and the atmosphere was electric,” Dr. Jesse R. Peel remembered. The event, Peel believed, served “as a coming of age for our community.” A few weeks later, Johnson confided to a friend, “We plan to have an even larger event next spring.”
In recognition of Allen’s and Johnson’s contributions, the HRC Atlanta Steering Committee established the Leon Allen and Winston Johnson Community Leadership Award. The award is presented each year “to the individual or group who offers distinguished service and leadership for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community.” Past recipients include Dr. Jesse R. Peel and Paul Plate, the co-founder of the Atlanta non-profit, Positive Impact.
One of the ways we can learn about a place as large and complex as Atlanta is through the lives of residents like Winston Johnson. Johnson’s papers provide a fascinating glimpse into the life and work of an indefatigable activist. The stories highlighted in this post represent only a fraction of the inspiring work Winston has been involved in. There are many more stories. Now it is up to you to come explore them and to get involved.
You can find more information about the Winston Johnson here: https://findingaids.library.emory.edu/documents/johnson1455/.
Written by Assistant Director and Curator of Political, Cultural, and Social Movements Collections, Randy Gue