Willard R. Johnson, professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at MIT who focused his scientific research on the political development of Africa, died in late October at the age of 87. Johnson was a faculty member at MIT for nearly 60 years, while he also founded and participated in numerous civic initiatives aimed at achieving political and social progress in Africa and the United States, and strengthening engagement between the two regions.
Johnson joined the political science faculty in 1964 as an assistant professor. He was the first black faculty member at MIT to rise through the ranks and secure a position from within, and he created a broad portfolio of accomplishments. Johnson conducted extensive fieldwork in Africa, published important contributions to the study of African political institutions and independence movements, advocated for the inclusion of more black academics in the community of MIT and was a leading voice at MIT and in the Boston area against South Africa. aside.
Johnson has also held visiting positions at Harvard Business School, Boston University, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, in addition to his time as a faculty member and professor emeritus at MIT.
Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1935 and moved to Pasadena, California, where he graduated from Muir High School. He received his AA from Pasadena City College in 1955 and a BA in international relations from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1957. At UCLA, he served as student body president and also contributed to the founding of the campus. chapter of the NAACP. Notably, he was also responsible for bringing WEB Dubois to campus as a speaker. Johnson then received his master’s degree in African studies with distinction from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in 1961, and his doctorate in political science from Harvard University, in 1965.
Johnson’s Harvard thesis, “The Reunification of Cameroon: The Political Union of Many Africas,” formed the basis of his first book, published as “The Federation of Cameroon” by Princeton University Press in 1970. In a reviewing the book in the Journal of Modern African Studies, W. Norman Haupt wrote: “This carefully prepared book is based on a solid and objective understanding of local facts and preferences”, while noting that it “is replete with these smallest details of the story which make it a fascinating read.
Johnson himself would say his most important accomplishment at UCLA was meeting his wife, Vivian Johnson. Not only did they form a lasting bond in marriage, but they also became academic collaborators and jointly published “West African Governments and Voluntary Development Organizations: Priorities for Partnership” (University Press of America, 1990) . Political scientist Pearl T. Robinson of Tufts University called it “required reading for anyone seeking to better understand the struggles to promote increased political pluralism and alternative development strategies in contemporary Africa.”
Johnson remained incredibly active in politics and public service throughout his life. From 1968 to 1970, he took a leave of absence from MIT to serve as executive director of Circle, a community development organization based in Roxbury, Massachusetts. In 1972, he headed the task force on African policy for George McGovern’s committee for the presidency and served on the Foreign Affairs Study Group of the Democratic Party Advisory Council. He also served on the American National Committee for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Johnson later became a leading voice at MIT and nationally in the anti-apartheid movement. He led the Boston chapter of TransAfrica’s Free South Africa Movement. As Johnson noted, in a meeting for the Department of Political Science’s 50th anniversary celebration, he was arrested, along with Nobel laureate George Wald of Harvard and other local luminaries, at an anti-apartheid rally in Boston. Johnson was proud to have actively participated in Nelson Mandela’s visit to Boston in 1990, part of the anti-apartheid leader’s momentous trip to the United States.
In 1991, a few years before leaving his professorship, Johnson founded the Kansas Institute for African American and Native American Family History, which promotes the preservation and documentation of family identity, traditions, and accomplishments of community members African-American and indigenous people. Midwestern American Communities.
Johnson’s 2001 article published in the Black History Newsletter, “Tracing Blood Trails on the Ice: Commemorating the 1861-1862 “Great Escape” of Indians and Blacks to Kansas,” recounts an important episode in this under-explored regional history. He remained active in the Kansas Institute for African American and Native American Family History until his death.
Johnson also founded the Boston Pan-African Forum, a group promoting mutually beneficial relations between the United States and African people, and remained an active part of it throughout his later years.
Throughout his time at MIT, Johnson was an active voice for diversifying the Institute’s faculty and student community, and for greater opportunities for black faculty and students. Johnson was proud of the accomplishments of Institute students such as Georgia Persons PhD ’78, a political scientist who is now a professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech; and Marsha Coleman-Adebayo PhD ’82, a prominent anti-workplace discrimination activist whose experiences contributed to the passage of the Federal Employee Notification and Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation Act, signed into federal law in 2002.
Seeking to build stronger ties between scholarly communities, Johnson also initiated a joint political science seminar between MIT and Howard University in the mid-1970s, an effort that culminated in a combined lecture session for all participating students from both institutions.
Johnson remained a visible presence in the political science department after his transition to professor emeritus in 1996. Colleagues who were fortunate enough to cross his path were greeted with an extremely warm smile. Those who knew him during his time at the college have fond memories of him stopping by their offices to check in, inquire about his family members, and provide them with the distinctive encouragement and caring understanding that only he could offer , thanks to his extraordinary experience and character.