He had only a sixth-grade education, but Harvey Johnson Jr. knew enough about civics to see that black people in his hometown of Benson had long been underrepresented in local politics.
So Johnson sued the town in 1988, alleging violations of the Voting Rights Act that was passed two decades earlier to stop the disenfranchisement of black people.
The Voting Rights Act, a federal law, remains in the North Carolina news even now. A lawsuit is still pending against a 2013 law, passed by the Republican-led N.C. General Assembly, that instituted a voter ID requirement and limited early voting. Critics say will discourage black and Hispanic voters.
But in Benson, the more local impact of the Voting Rights Act has not been challenged since Johnson’s legal victory nearly 30 years ago.
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About a third of Benson’s population is black, a share that’s been the same for years. Before the suit, a black person had never been elected as a town commissioner.
A federal court agreed with Johnson, and in 1991 the town changed the way it elected its leaders. What used to be an all at-large system now divides the seats among three at-large and three district representatives, plus the mayor.
Benson also elected its first black commissioner, Eugene Watson, in 1991.
Johnson died the next year. At a Black History Month ceremony Sunday honoring his legacy at the Benson Museum of Local History, one of Johnson’s daughters said he would be proud of the town.
“It’s always going to be our roots,” said his daughter, Marilyn Scott, 47. “And it’s our roots because my father made it better.”
For a time, though, those roots were nearly severed.
Born in 1924, Johnson joined the Army during World War II. But when he came back to Benson and started a family, he realized he didn’t want to raise them in the racially tense community.
He took them to Washington, D.C., and made a career working as a custodian at Howard University, Scott said. But he couldn’t shake his love for his hometown, or the sense that black people there were being disenfranchised. In 1975, he moved his family back and became an activist.
“My father was a mover, a shaker, a man of action,” Scott said.
Since his lawsuit forced changes in 1991, five black people have served on the town board, two of them still in office. Mayor William Massengill Jr., who is white, said the past few decades of progress in race relations across the country aren’t enough, and groups are still being marginalized.
Yet he urged the crowd to remember that words alone won’t cause change.
“The world of difference that’s happened didn’t just happen,” Massengill said. “It was created by bold leadership like the leadership exemplified by Harvey Johnson. And Benson is better for his boldness.”
Scott noted that her father won his lawsuit but lost other battles, she said, such as convincing town leaders to start a black history parade.
“How can you celebrate an animal but not black people?” she asked, referring to Benson’s famous Mule Days festival, which draws 50,000 visitors yearly to the town of fewer than 4,000 residents.
Yet there have been other efforts to recognize the black community, like these annual Black History Month celebrations. Sunday’s was the Benson’s fifth and was attended by about 50 people.
Mayor pro tem Fred Nelson, who is black, said Johnson’s legacy lives on every time he casts a vote.
Nelson moved to Benson in 1989, just after Johnson sued the town. And while he was originally elected in one of the districts that lawsuit created, Nelson said he’s now proud to serve in an at-large seat – meaning he was elected by the residents of the whole town, not just one area.
“Because of his activism, I serve on the town board and have done so for 18 years,” Nelson said.
Doran: 919-836-2858; @will_doran