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As she prepares to leave Congress, Eddie Bernice Johnson fears a rollback in the civil rights she fought decades to advance

By Andrew Zhang, The Texas Tribune

As she prepares to leave Congress, Eddie Bernice Johnson fears a rollback in the civil rights she fought decades to advance” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Eddie Bernice Johnson started writing Texas political history at age 36. It was in San Antonio, June 1972, when she overpowered the party establishment’s pick to win election as vice chair of the Texas Democratic Convention.

The newspapers reporting on the event called her a “Negro,” the style of the moment. She declared her breakthrough victory a first step.

She was elected to the Texas House later that year as sweeping social change driven by the civil rights movement was washing over Texas. Johnson placed herself at the forefront, tapping the country’s last great wave of liberalism to fashion the voices of millions of demonstrators into laws that helped break down segregation.

A half-century later, it is time for Johnson to stand down. The oldest member of the U.S. House of Representatives at 86, she is nearing the end of her 15th — and last — term representing Dallas. In January, she will retire.

She leaves the political battlefield as the most powerful Texan on Capitol Hill by rank and one of a dwindling number of Black members of Congress whose early adulthood was spent protesting en masse, marching on the streets and boycotting businesses during the civil rights movement. They have served as reminders of the change possible in America, embodying the short generational gap between the country today and its far-reaching discrimination 50 years ago.

As the first Black woman to achieve many of the heights she reached, she has leaned on fierce grit and an indebted commitment to democracy — the old-school kind fraught with negotiations and slow progress — to tackle the legal and social barriers that framed her life. Around Capitol Hill, she grew a reputation for her dealmaking abilities and concentration on nuts-and-bolts legislation. She is often referred to simply as EBJ.

But her career comes to a close with only a muted sense of victory. Rank partisanship, culture wars and white nationalism are deflecting the arc of history’s pendulum.

“It seems that we are chipping away, going backwards rather than forwards,” Johnson told The Texas Tribune in an April interview.

Some of the sweeping protections born of civil rights-era legislation have been slowly peeled away, their opponents arguing that the legislation has finished its work of creating a more equal society. Many of the issues that Johnson tackled at the beginning of her career — whether racial equality or women’s rights — continue to rear their heads through to its end.

For Johnson, the unraveling is most glaring on one, personal issue: voting. States including her home of Texas have passed slates of voting restrictions in the name of election security that critics say will make it harder for voters of color to cast ballots.

“It’s really a puzzle why a nation of a democracy does not want to see African Americans vote. It’s probably one of the most stressful subjects and one of the ones that has our complete attention,” Johnson said. “You begin to wonder, ‘What is the mentality of those people that have continued to try to take us back?’ I guess all the way back to slavery.”

Johnson came of political age when both women and people of color stuck out in the halls of power and fought tooth and nail for changes in a country that too often denied people like themselves representation. She was never afraid to speak out, whether through vocal criticism or the threat of lawsuits, about inequity in front of her.

“Some of the same kinds of issues that we worked on back then are still being worked on today. Nothing was overnight. Nothing was miraculous,” Johnson said about her early years in office. “I hope never to tire of fighting for rights. I have seen the value of gaining rights. I know the value of not having rights.”

The granddaughter of sharecroppers, Johnson’s barrier-breaking political career started in the heart of deeply segregated Texas.

“They were not looking for an African American female”

Born in 1935, the year Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Pacific Ocean, Johnson grew up in Waco with dreams of working in the medical field. Her high school counselor told her girls were nurses. Segregated Texas had no accredited nursing program she could attend, so Johnson went north to Saint Mary’s College in Indiana.

Republican Kay Bailey of Harris County and Democrats Sarah Weddington of Travis County and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas County, left to right, are seen in the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 7, 1973.
From left: Republican Kay Bailey of Harris County and Democrats Sarah Weddington of Travis County and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas County, in the House chamber at the Texas Capitol in Austin on Jan. 7, 1973. Credit: University of Texas at Arlington Libraries, Special Collections

After graduating in 1955, she planned to take a nursing job at Waco’s Veterans Affairs hospital, but her father worked there, and a nepotism rule prevented it. Instead, she chose the VA hospital in Dallas, landing her in a city she would come to love and represent in office.

At the time, Dallas was a starkly racist city. Black people were not expected to be working professionals and had few housing options. She quickly faced that reality in 1956 at her hospital job interview.

“I was due at eight o’clock. It was around 10 by the time they got around to seeing me, only to learn that they were looking for a white male, because my name was listed as Eddie B Johnson,” Johnson said. “They were not looking for an African American female.”

Johnson got the job and made her way up to chief psychiatric nurse. She helped organize the hospital’s first union — which she couldn’t join as a supervisor — after noticing that many African American employees had to have significantly more credentials than their white counterparts.

A few years into the job, Johnson was planning a trip to Indiana for her college roommate’s wedding and headed downtown to the city’s nicest department stores to buy an outfit. She was confronted with rules that restricted how Black people could shop.

“I wanted to look nice, I was making a pretty decent salary,” Johnson said. “I discovered that I could not try on clothes other than what they brought to the dressing room for you. Couldn’t try on shoes at some stores. Couldn’t try on hats.”

Johnson returned from the wedding with a mission. A local YWCA chapter she was active in formed a group of women calling themselves “50 Sensitive Black Women” to boycott Dallas department stores. They recruited the Dallas Weekly, a Black newspaper, to publish pictures of people breaking the boycott.

The effort was successful. Neiman Marcus was the first store to open fully, and others followed.

The energy from protests like Johnson’s across the nation ultimately manifested in 1960s civil rights legislation, which remain hallmarks of efforts at racial equality. In particular, the 1965 Voting Rights Act helped eliminate barriers that obstructed Black people from participating in the electoral process.

In 1971, Democrats — largely white, male and conservative at the time — passed a Texas House map that proposed Dallas County as a multimember district, in which a candidate running to represent a specific part of the county still had to win the vote of the whole region. In effect, people of color could not win office in such districts. But citing the unconstitutional dilution of minority voters, a court in January 1972 struck down parts of the map in favor of single-member districts.

Johnson went door to door raising money for the lawsuit, not knowing she would later run for office in the districts it created.

As a VA nurse, she was considered a government employee and could not run for office under the Hatch Act. But her activism drew the notice of some powerful Dallasites. Stanley Marcus — then scion of the Marcus family — gave her a job at his downtown Dallas store on the condition that she run for office. She took the offer in February 1972.

Her campaign team included two former Dallas Cowboy players, Daniel Weiser — a “numbers guru” who helped map out the district — and many volunteers who helped raise money, make phone calls and drive her son to school to free up her time.

“Not having a big budget and not much money, we just set the campaign office up in my home, with most of the activity being in the garage,” Johnson said. “We decided we would make 40 houses per day in the afternoon after leaving work until we covered the district.”

Johnson clinched the Democratic nomination in June after winning a runoff. Unopposed in the general election, she won the seat in the Texas House on Nov. 7, 1972, the same day Richard Nixon swept the Electoral College vote to win reelection. Her victory etched her name in history as the first Black woman from Dallas to win election to public office.

Historic firsts in the Texas Legislature 

In 1973, Johnson entered her first term as part of a new wave of Texas politics.

An official portrait of then-state Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, in her first term in 1973, the 63rd legislative session.
An official portrait of then-state Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, in her first term in the 63rd legislative session in 1973. Credit: State Preservation Board

Shortly after the 63rd Texas Legislature’s opening bells rang, the U.S. Supreme Court issued Roe v. Wade. Texas voters had just approved an equal rights amendment to the state constitution and sent the most diverse class of lawmakers — with the most women and African Americans ever elected — to Austin.

The six women in the House included state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, now the longest-serving woman in the Legislature and still represents Houston today; Kay Bailey Hutchison, who at the time was just Kay Bailey and would go on to be a U.S. senator and U.S. Ambassador to NATO; and Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade in front of the Supreme Court.

“What do you call a woman legislator — Mrs., Miss, Ms.?” a January 1973 Associated Press report asked. Johnson said it didn’t matter to her.

Johnson invited seven other African Americans who had won seats in the 63rd Legislature to her home after their elections.

Thompson recalls her, Johnson and G.J. Sutton — all newly elected Black state representatives — gathering in the den of Johnson’s Dallas home for the first meeting, which was the beginning of the lawmakers efforts’ to organize the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.

They focused on issues they felt they could best influence: unions, funding of minority-serving schools and factory safety. Today, that caucus stands 19 members strong.

In session, Johnson pressed for change in an array of issues facing women and people of color. She specifically recalls working to address gender discrimination in credit, as married women could get credit only under their husbands’ names at the time.

“There were hardly any issues that had been addressed in depth because there had not been any minorities to amount to anything in the past before we got there,” Johnson recalls. “The plate was full. I mean, it was a very segregated state — by gender and race.”

Thompson, the Houston lawmaker, came to know Johnson as a determined legislator who brought in a magnitude of lived experience — as a nurse, mother and African American woman. One of the bills the women pushed aimed to make rape statutes more fair to women survivors.

“If you started talking about rape and incest and things of that nature, working the hospitals you see a lot of those things,” Thompson said of Johnson’s contributions to policy discussions. “The things that she did made the lives of children better — it definitely made the lives of people in the medical field much better, particularly families and women and working people.”

Energy around women’s rights was strong, as the 1970s was one of the peaks in Texas feminist activism. Johnson and her peers pushed to the front of those pursuits.

“Some of you won’t return because we’ll replace you,” Johnson told the mostly male House during her closing remarks of the session, according to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram report.

In one incident newspapers extensively chronicled, Johnson accused State Comptroller Robert S. Calvert of job discrimination. His employees were overwhelmingly white and male. She demanded his resignation and said impeachment was on the table, according to an AP report from September 1973.

Calvert, in response, publicly called Johnson a racial slur.

The two ended up sitting down to talk out the conflict. Johnson said they ended up having a “very pleasant relationship.”

“I think that one thing that’s missing now is the communication. The explanation of what you feel like when something like that happens,” Johnson told The Dallas Morning News in a podcast reflecting on the incident. “I always felt that I needed to understand the people who had those kinds of policies or bad attitudes to see how they arrived at them.

“We don’t give each other the opportunity, sometimes, to make a mistake,” she said.

Carter administration and a return to the Legislature

During her third term in the Texas House, Johnson resigned for a post in the Carter administration as a regional appointee for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services). She was reelected to the Legislature in 1986, this time in the Senate.

At that time, pragmatic negotiations were more possible among legislative adversaries. Ron Kirk, a longtime family friend of Johnson and a former Dallas mayor, then ran the city’s government affairs program and remembers calling up Johnson to negotiate a bill to increase minority participation in government contracts.

“We were able to get something done because it had her imprint on it,” Kirk said, noting that others had failed to gain momentum on the bill. “It had her style, her ability to cross the aisle to do something that otherwise we labored to get done for 10 or 12 years. And I watched it happen time and time again.

“She was the one that could both understand the anger, the frustration, particularly of women and people of color. But at some point you have to stop being obsessed with just being right and figure out, ‘How do we get this done?’” Kirk added.

Johnson’s commitment to pragmatism comes not from the idea that society can’t be more equitable but from her belief that democracy often requires inherent compromise that can slow the roll of rapid change. “Perfect” pieces of legislation were rare, she said — and they still are.

Congresswomen Eddie Bernice Johnson introduces Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke at a town hall over the shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde and gun reform in Dallas on June 1, 2022.
U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, introduces Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke at a town hall in Dallas after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, on June 1, 2022. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

“We didn’t think so much about party as we do now back at that time. We had to sometimes pause and think about who was Democrat or Republican,” Johnson said. “If you couldn’t get a law the way you wanted it, you just kept working on it until you get a little piece here and a little piece there.”

One of the most contentious negotiations she faced in the Senate was one of her most important acts — the insider fight over redistricting.

Texas gained three new U.S. House seats from the 1990 census. Democrats, in one of their final years in control of the Legislature, aimed to craft new districts for minority representation. Johnson intended to run in one of those districts.

Johnson was unapologetic in her determination to draw a Dallas seat that could boost African American representation in Congress. But creating her district required siphoning Democratic voters from other incumbent Democrats. The result was a district that snaked across Dallas County in a way that sparked criticism from both parties.

Democrats felt like some constituents were being drawn away in a manner that could hamper their reelection, while Republicans called the map “dead on arrival” in federal court review. Texas Monthly, in its review of best and worst legislators, chastised what it depicted as extensively gerrymandered lines.

“Imagine a two-year-old child on a white silk sofa with a new set of Magic Markers,” the magazine wrote. “Add a large dose of glowering hostility and you get the picture of how Senator Eddie Bernice Johnson handled the responsibility of drawing new congressional districts for Texas.”

Ascension to Congress

Johnson won election to her handcrafted Congressional district with ease in 1992 and faced no real competition for the seat for 30 years.

When she stepped foot on Capitol Hill as the first registered nurse elected to Congress, Johnson hoped to sit on a committee involved with health policy. She instead landed two assignments she still holds today: the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee.

Her time in Congress has traveled every avenue a member could take, with leadership in various caucuses and committees and advocacy for people in and out of her district.

She was elected chair of the influential Congressional Black Caucus in 2001. As the leader, she championed — as she has done so many times — the right to vote, a fight most visibly exemplified during the certification of George W. Bush’s election as president.

Many Democrats deemed Bush’s victory over then-Vice President Al Gore illegitimate. Johnson traveled to Florida to hear testimonies from voters who expressed concerns about the results. The election results remain hotly debated today, as recounts from media outlets have yielded mixed results and a full one was never completed.

U.S. President George W. Bush hosts a general agenda meeting about domestic education issues with U.S. congressional black caucus members in the Cabinet Room of the White House, January 31, 2001. From left, are: Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX); Chair of Congressional Black Caucus Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX); Bush and Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD).
President George W. Bush hosted a meeting with U.S. Congressional Black Caucus members in the White House on Jan. 31, 2001. From left: U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston; caucus chair Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas; Bush and Representative Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland. Credit: REUTERS

“It was a common thread throughout the minority community and much of the majority community that the vote in Florida was not accurately reported,” Johnson said. “We felt that we had a responsibility to put it in front of the public.”

It was Jan. 6, 2001, when Johnson, leading her Black Caucus colleagues, voiced those protests on the House floor.

The effort was futile, and they knew it was: The process to contest electoral votes (and the one that was used 20 years later in an attempt to contest the 2020 election results) required the signature of one representative and one senator. They were unable to get a senator to sign on, though she said some privately indicated their support.

When the time had come to certify the Florida election results, members of the caucus rose one by one to object. Johnson spoke fourth.

“I rise on behalf of the Congressional Black Caucus to object to the 25 electoral votes from Florida,” Johnson said on the floor. “It is in writing, signed by a number of members of Congress, and because we received hundreds of thousands of telegrams and emails and telephone calls, but we do not have a senator.”

Gore, the vice president at the time who led the certification, dismissed the protests and moved forward. Johnson led her colleagues out of the chamber, to the applause of dozens.

“I feel very, very strongly that you have a right to express your opinion,” Johnson said about contesting votes, as Republicans continue to see protesting the 2020 election as a litmus test. “I also feel strongly that if they feel that way, to stand up for it. I also feel, however, that if you know you’re wrong, and you’re just doing it for the sake of doing it, that is not right.”

She worked with the president during his tenure, utilizing her connections with Texans in the White House to build what she called a “decent” relationship with Bush, who she pointedly noted reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006. (Bush, however, also put two conservative justices on the Supreme Court that joined a majority to gut the law in 2013.)

In the House, Johnson’s power was often limited depending on which party held control. Democrats held the majority only for about a third of her tenure.

With little challenge to her political reign at home, she slowly moved up to become the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee in 2010. But she did not wield the committee’s gavel until Democrats won the House majority in 2018.

As chair, she steered the committee away from the politicization over the scientific consensus on climate change that consumed the body under Republican leadership.

Johnson has focused on legislative efforts on funding scientific research and increasing minority representation in STEM fields. She wanted to hear the voices of every member who wanted to put ideas forward — but has not entertained people “questioning decisions that were arrived at 30 years ago in science research.”

She is currently the third-highest Democrat on the transportation committee and has delivered millions of dollars in extensive improvements for North Texas, including the Dallas Area Rapid Transit, the region’s transportation authority that she called her “baby from the first day” that she got to Congress.

Dallas’ Union Station — which was established in 1916 and had segregated facilities for decades — was renamed after Johnson in 2019 to honor her contributions.

“Everyone kind of understands that she’s, in many ways, the keeper of the flame. She’s the one who knows how these projects began, where their issues were,” U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, a Dallas Democrat who also sits on the infrastructure committee. “The work that she’s done on that specific issue is incomparable, and I don’t think we’ll ever see something like that again.”

A trailblazing legacy

Johnson’s final years in office have been marked by stark political polarization. Language and rhetoric is more divisive. Important bills increasingly pass or fall on near-party lines. Republicans and Democrats don’t publicly interact.

“I see so much more division. It’s so unfortunate, because I think that there are a number of people across the aisle that I have relationships with that sometimes are kept somewhat private,” Johnson said.

Johnson won’t be on the front lines to continue the fight as her retirement nears. She’ll leave the task to a younger generation. Future leaders may not have been alive to experience the society that Johnson grew up in, but her legacy will help serve as a reminder.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, in her Washington, D.C. office on July 18, 2018.
U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, in her Washington, D.C. office on July 18, 2018. Credit: Leigh Vogel for The Texas Tribune
Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson talks to District 30 Democratic candidate Jasmine Crockett at Crockett’s election night watch party in Dallas on May 24, 2022.
Johnson talks to Jasmine Crockett, her likely successor in Congress, at Crockett’s election night watch party in Dallas on May 24, 2022. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune
First: U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, in her Washington, D.C. office on July 18, 2018. Last: Johnson talks to Jasmine Crockett, her likely successor in Congress, at Crockett’s election night watch party in Dallas on May 24, 2022. Credit: First: Leigh Vogel|Last: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

Allred still has a picture of him alongside Johnson and famed civil rights activist John Lewis at an event during his competitive 2018 campaign for Congress, calling it a “symbolic moment” that represented how they were able to pave the way for leaders like him.

“Whenever EBJ steps away, I’ll still think about how she would have handled something for Dallas, because I do think that she’s always been an African American trailblazer,” Allred, 39, said. “Everyone who’s come into contact with her will remember that and think about how she would have handled it, just the way that I do right now with John Lewis.”

Johnson’s vision for her country underscores a hopeful portrait of the possibilities of democracy, a system under which she and her contemporaries faced painful discrimination but also gained the power to break down the walls around them. And especially when the promises of democracy might seem elusive, the fight continues, as she recognized 21 years ago.

“No matter who went to the White House, our issues are permanent,” Johnson said as she concluded a press conference protesting the 2000 presidential election results. “When I was marching before I had a child in this world, I was marching so that this day, we wouldn’t have to be standing here like this.

“My child is now 40 years old with three children, and I’m still marching. And still asking for justice,” she added. “And if I look back through history and try to see how it projects into the future, this battle will go on. So it’s not a new one. But we got new energy, and we will continue.”

Rep. Ernie Bernice Johnson, D-TX 30th District, has been a Congresswoman since 1993. Photographed at her office in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., on July 10, 2019.
U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, has been a Congresswoman since 1993. Photographed at her office in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., on July 10, 2019. Credit: Lexey Swall for The Texas Tribune

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