By CHERYL McCULLERS
"Who would have thought we would still be marching about voting rights in the year 2001?" So asked Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D- Texas) during her delivery of the keynote address for the Library's African American History Month program on Feb. 13. This year's theme was "Creating and Defining the African American Community."
Voting rights is one of the many issues of concern to this fifth-term congresswoman, particularly in the aftermath of the recent presidential election. Recalling the prophetic words of Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. Johnson said, "It is important to vote because one day that vote will determine who will lead our nation."
In addition to representing her Texas constituents, Rep. Johnson also serves as head of the 37-member Congressional Black Caucus for the 107th Congress.
"Every black American looks to us for leadership," she said. "But the Congressional Black Caucus's agenda goes beyond the black agenda and opens doors for all people." She lists workers' rights, the minimum wage, affirmative action and access to education as some of the issues affecting many segments of the population. "There's not a single thing that we do in Congress that's only for black Americans," she said.
Rep. Johnson's concerns for the community began early in her childhood. The second child of four, Eddie Bernice Johnson grew up in a close-knit neighborhood in Waco, Texas, on a block where people from all walks of life -- from maintenance men to college professors -- resided and looked out for one another. "We were disciplined by everyone in the neighborhood," she recalled. Her parents, who worked to register voters and raise money for the poll tax (a tax imposed to keep segments of the population from voting), were her "political, cultural and spiritual role models." From her father, she learned debating skills. From her mother, she developed a quiet strength. Both have served her well in her political life.
With her parents' strong work ethic and no-nonsense rules firmly ingrained in her, she enrolled at St. Mary's College at the University of Notre Dame at the early age of 16 and completed her degree in three years. Of her accelerated pace in college, she explained, "There were two of us in college at the same time. My parents simply told me to put my mind to it and finish and that's what I did."
Upon completing a degree in nursing, she returned to Texas, where she began working at the Dallas Veterans Hospital. Now earning a paycheck, she stopped at a booth where a woman was collecting poll taxes. She was promptly given "a lecture on the importance of voting" and asked to make a list of potential voters, regardless of their ability to pay the tax. Although not old enough to vote herself, Eddie Bernice did that and more. In addition to registering voters, she worked on public health issues throughout Dallas.
She then turned her attention to her place of employment. Recognizing the importance of job opportunity and job security, she organized the first union at the hospital. "I did my homework first. I memorized every personnel rule and regulation that related to opportunity and nonopportunity at the Veterans Hospital."
Volunteering by day and working at night, she was exposed to the racial bigotry prevalent in Dallas. To help promote racial equality and understanding, she formed coalitions among organizations such as the National Council of Jewish Women and the National Council of Negro Women. To change the attitudes and practices of the segregated city, she organized a group of "50 Sensitive Black Women." The group's sole purpose was to integrate downtown Dallas. Of this challenge Rep. Johnson said, "It taught me that unity can make a difference. We bought cameras and took pictures for the newspapers of people that patronized stores we were boycotting. Eventually stores closed."
With the experience gained from community organizing, Rep. Johnson soon became a political powerhouse in Dallas. First elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1972, she quickly made a name for herself as an advocate for workers, children and families. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter appointed her regional director of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In 1986 she was elected state senator, becoming the first African American woman from the Dallas area to be elected to this office since Reconstruction. In 1992 she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
The discrimination she encountered as a young volunteer worker and state senator still drive Rep. Johnson in her crusade to fight injustice today. Incensed by racial slurs from the state comptroller, Rep. Johnson forced his removal and was instrumental in recruiting Robert Bullock for the position. Bullock went on to become lieutenant governor in Texas under then governor George Bush.
"I've never been able to understand why I'm despised because of my skin color. What is the fear? Isn't it silly that this nation has come along without having the benefit of the brain power that all of us could bring to the table? Our diversity makes us a nation of nations. That is our beauty and that is our power."
Despite their differences on the issues, Rep. Johnson anticipates an amicable working relationship with President Bush and Vice President Cheney, both Texas natives. "They know me and they know my issues." The president acknowledged this at a recent meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus when he jokingly said to Rep. Johnson, "I know you real well."
If it was a personality contest, Rep. Johnson said she might well have voted for George Bush. "But it's not about personality or party, it's about the issues," she said. Rep. Johnson's belief is echoed in the Congressional Black Caucus's theme, coined by former caucus chairman William Clay, "no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permanent issues."
"My issues will be the same as they have always been. They are access to educational opportunities for poor children, equal resources for inner-city schools and tax cuts that will also benefit the working class of this nation." In stressing the importance of education, she said, "We have gone from being concerned with reading, writing and graduating to making sure that we are digitally included. The bottom line is being educationally included."
Ms. Johnson's current status as a "triple minority" (black, female and Democrat) has only increased her resolve. "I cannot lose courage just as you cannot. We must continue to open doors, write our history and intertwine ourselves with this society because this is our nation."
Ms. McCullers is on detail in the Public Affairs Office.