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Willard R. Johnson, 87

MIT professor inspired a generation of students, scholars and activists

Thea Sweet
Willard R. Johnson, 87
Willard R. Johnson PHOTO: STUART DARSCH

Pioneering scholar, activist and anti-apartheid leader Willard R. Johnson died in October at the age of 87.

Johnson was a distinguished professor emeritus of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and made history in 1968 by becoming the first Black professor to earn tenure at MIT. His academic research centered on international relations and development policies, particularly focused on Africa. Johnson left behind a legacy that spanned academia, activism and a profound commitment to family.

Born with a passion for justice and a keen intellect, Johnson dedicated his life to challenging inequities. Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1935 into a family that included his brother, twin sisters and his parents, who were both Kansas natives.

His father’s career as a bacteriologist with the U.S. Public Health Service brought the family to various locations, shaping Johnson’s early experiences. They moved to Tuskegee, Alabama, and then to Pasadena, California, in 1946, where Johnson graduated from Muir High School. His pursuit of knowledge led him to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he served as student body president and established the campus’ chapter of the NAACP. He studied international relations and graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1957, setting the stage for a remarkable academic and activist career.

He earned a master’s degree in African studies with distinction from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University. In 1964, he was appointed assistant professor of political science at MIT and was promoted to associate professor in 1969. His dissertation at Harvard led to his book in 1970, “The Cameroon Federation: Political Integration in a Fragmentary Society.”

Johnson’s journey into African studies took a unique route, marked by his engagement and interest with international relations. Inspired by Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s bold actions that seized control of the Suez Canal in 1956 and Ghana’s independence from colonial rule in the subsequent years, Johnson shifted his focus to Africa. His dedication to understanding and documenting the continent’s history and its role in global affairs became a lifelong pursuit and a catalyst for activism.

Johnson’s journey to activism began with a vision of an independent, united Africa. In the 1960s, he envisioned Africa as a key ally in lifting African Americans out of stifling segregation and second-class citizenship and later co-founded an organization with like-minded Black professors to broaden the coursework on the African continent’s independence movement within the African Studies Association.

In the midst of a changing world, Johnson stood as a beacon of empowerment, believing in “the power of a mobilized people” to shape a better future. His impact reached far beyond the classroom, inspiring generations of students, scholars and activists.

In the 1960s, Johnson founded the Boston Pan-African Forum, an organization dedicated to promoting unity and empowering the pan-African community. His tireless efforts in the fight against apartheid earned him recognition as a leader and advocate for human rights.

Another of Johnson’s significant contributions was the co-founding in 1977 of TransAfrica — a Washington lobby focused on Africa and the Caribbean. This groundbreaking initiative brought together Black scholars, including Harvard Law School graduate Randall Robinson. Johnson later founded and led the Boston Chapter of TransAfrica, playing a pivotal role in organizing important protests, such as the massive sit-in at the South African Embassy in D.C. during the 1980s. As president of the TransAfrica Boston Support Group in the ’80s, Johnson strongly promoted divestment from South Africa apartheid economies, which played a crucial role in the passage of divestment legislation by the Massachusetts House of Representatives and overriding a governor’s veto.

These actions ultimately forced a change in U.S. policy, with Ronald Reagan abandoning “constructive engagement” and signing a 1986 law imposing economic sanctions on the apartheid regime.

As a political science luminary and dedicated activist, Johnson’s influence reached far and wide, inspiring countless students to engage critically with the world and advocate for positive change. During his tenure at MIT, Johnson consistently advocated for the diversification of the Institute’s faculty and student body, pushing for increased opportunities for both Black faculty members and students. Colleagues and students remember him not only for his academic brilliance but also for his kindness, mentorship and unwavering dedication to justice.

Family heritage

Beyond the lecture halls and protest rallies, Johnson found his greatest accomplishment and legacy in his two daughters and four grandsons. Family reunions and special events were cherished moments, even during research trips to Africa. The family turned work journeys into shared adventures, as Johnson’s daughters also often undertook special school projects during these travels.

A testament to his dedication to family history, Johnson founded the Kansas Institute for African American and Native American Family History in 1991. Johnson’s vision of the institute was to preserve and document family identity, traditions, and accomplishments of members of the African American and Native American communities of the Midwest. Through this institute, he fostered inquiry, research and projects aimed at unraveling the intricate tapestry of his family’s heritage.

For more than 60 years, Johnson maintained a close friendship with Hubie Jones, celebrating milestones and anniversaries together. In a unique twist of fate, Willard and Vivian Johnson, and Hubie and his wife Kathy Jones, were married just a week apart. Hubie and Willard first crossed paths at an American Friends Service event in Cambridge, while Kathy and Vivian met during a shared class on African American history at Harvard.

Hubie Jones said Johnson educated two generations of political science students at MIT, many of whom became African scholars like him, going on to live in countries around the world, particularly in Africa. In addition, Jones notes that Johnson would want those following in his path to “stay focused and resolute in pursuit of social change. The pursuit of major societal change is a lifetime commitment, it is a marathon!” [and that] he would also say, “Make sure your advocacy for change rests on a foundation of solid theoretical knowledge.”

In retirement, both Willard and Vivian Johnson enjoyed the opportunity to work on their own projects. Johnson increased his research on his family history in Kansas and they traveled to visit and interview family members about his genealogy. They also often enjoyed visiting friends and places that they were unable to visit while working full time.

Throughout his career, Johnson demonstrated that knowledge and activism are powerful allies. In all of his work, he brought people together for activities of improvement. His legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of those he touched, a testament to a life well-lived in service to others.

Johnson’s wife, Vivian, shared valuable advice from Willard, encouraging future trailblazers to “demonstrate commitment to family, community, and learning about those whose work, struggles, and sacrifices made our lives and opportunities possible.” He believed, she said, that our country is a work in progress and every person of good will should continue to find ways of achieving “a more perfect union.”

Johnson’s memorial service was held Dec. 2, 2023 at the MIT Chapel.

MIT, Willard R. Johnson