“Lawyers are the guardians of our democratic society, our way of life,” said George R. Johnson ’73 in an interview last year with his hometown newspaper, the Greensboro [North Carolina] News & Record. “They protect our rights and civil liberties, which enable us all potentially to achieve our highest aspirations and become our best selves, individually and as a society.”
Johnson, who passed away in Greensboro on November 15, after a long illness, was a lawyer, a law school dean, a teacher, a college president, an Amherst College trustee, and an inspiration to generations of students from Georgia to Massachusetts and most places in between. Those who knew him will remember his laugh, which typically began as a low, biblical rumble. His natural eloquence was shaped by the South, the pulpit, and the bar. He was known as “the judge” even as a boy. At Amherst, he may have been the only undergraduate in history who did not look preposterous smoking a pipe.
Johnson was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1951, the son of Jimmie Lee Hunt Johnson and the late George R. Johnson, Sr., who served in the U.S. Air Force. He attended public schools in Columbus, graduating from Carver High School in 1969 as class valedictorian. It was at Carver that he met the love of his life, the former Linda Jane Morris, herself the valedictorian for the class of 1970. Horace Porter ’72, a friend of Johnson’s in Columbus and a year ahead of him at Amherst, remembers listening to a 15-year-old Johnson speak in church. He also remembers a word he heard for the first time from that 15-year-old’s lips: “vicissitudes.”
In 1969, Johnson left for Amherst College. The connection with Amherst was fortuitous, as it has been for so many of its students. During the summer before his senior year in high school, Johnson had attended a math camp at Knoxville College, in Tennessee—run by the Presbyterian Church and the Rockefeller Foundation, and attended mainly by Black students. The man who ran the program was Frederick A. Parker, Amherst class of 1920.
Johnson graduated in 1973 with a degree in American Studies. As a student, he wore his knowledge lightly, though references to Felix Frankfurter or Charles Hamilton Houston were as much a part of his repertoire as Friday afternoon cocktails. While at Amherst, he played an active role in the Afro-American Society, was vice-chair of The Amherst Student, and was tapped as class speaker at graduation. (During the graduation ceremony, Frederick A. Parker received an honorary degree.) It was a time of protests on campuses nationwide—and at Amherst—against war and racism, and Johnson was involved, eloquently, in both. He told his class:
The College motto when translated from the Latin reads “light the land.” Black students here felt that we who had lived in night and waited long in darkness had some special words of light to contribute to the “Amherst experience.” It was not for us alone that we protested; it was for all of us. It was not for us alone that Black Studies was created, as it was not for the English alone that Shakespeare wrote his plays, nor for the Irish alone that Yeats penned his poetry. It was for all of us.
Johnson married Linda Morris in 1975; a graduate of Tuskegee, she went on to earn an M.D. at the University of Buffalo. Johnson matriculated at Columbia University Law School, earning his law degree in 1976. He started his legal career as assistant counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs. The Carter Administration welcomed him to the Executive Office of the President in 1979 as assistant general counsel for the White House Council on Wage and Price Stability.
Johnson’s teaching career began in 1981 as a faculty member at George Mason University School of Law. In 1988, he joined Howard University Law School as a visiting professor. He went on to become the associate dean for academic affairs. Johnson served from 1996 to 2002 as president of LeMoyne-Owen College, a historically black institution in Memphis. In 2006, after several years of private practice in Washington, Johnson joined the founding faculty of Elon University School of Law, in North Carolina. He served as the school’s first associate dean of academic affairs, and in 2009 was named dean of the school. Under Johnson’s leadership, Elon received full accreditation from the American Bar Association, an achievement that Johnson regarded as among his proudest. He remained dean until his decision to return to the faculty ranks in 2014.
Johnson was an “institutionalist”—perhaps the word you might have heard once he was done with “vicissitudes.” He harbored no illusions about the perfectibility either of people or the institutions they create, but believed that institutions—slowly and continually improved—were the best way to preserve and advance human and social potential.
Distrust of institutions—of every kind—today runs deep. Johnson’s life is a powerful testament to his belief in their necessity: in law, education, religion, commerce, everywhere. He devoted to his life to institutions. In 1996, he was elected by Amherst alumni to a six-year term as a member of the College’s board of trustees. Earlier this year, Johnson was named as one of five 2020 Legal Legends of Color, a recognition bestowed by the North Carolina Bar. Over the decades, Johnson has served on many boards: the National Center for Community and Justice, in Greensboro; the Council of Independent Colleges; the Amistad Research Center; the Economic Club of Memphis; Universal Life Insurance Company; Autozone Inc.; the Memphis Arts Council; WKNO Public Broadcasting; the Memphis Zoological Society; the Memphis Redbirds Foundation; Soulsville USA, the parent organization of the STAX Museum and Academy; Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity; the Beta Epsilon Boule Foundation of Sigma Pi Phi; Triad Stage; and Greensboro College. A devout Christian, George chaired the deacon board at Shiloh Baptist Church, in Washington, D.C., and served on its board of trustees. He was also a member of the deacon board at Providence Baptist Church, in Greensboro.
The institution of the family stands above others. George Johnson leaves behind his wife, Linda; their son, William Robert Johnson (Amherst ’03), and his wife Kerry; and two grandchildren, Nina and Theodore. Johnson is also survived by three sisters and a brother, all in Georgia.
And then there is his extended Amherst family, which is not confined by narrow boundaries of generation. George Johnson never let go of anyone, nor did anyone ever lose affection for him. As news of his death began to spread, memories filled phone conversations and email threads. Over a period of four decades, Johnson had been a mentor to countless Amherst students—young people, just starting out on their lives, and seized by the questions he asked in his graduation speech in 1973: “Is it right? Is it fair? Is it just?”
Here is a sampling of comments from a Black alumni listserv, sometimes compressed for concision:
From Charlton Copeland’96: “I met George Johnson when I was an Amherst student in the 90’s and he’d come back to campus. He was among the most generous people, both then and after—a great mentor to younger law teachers.”
From Jack Pannell ’80: “While he was a man of many accomplishments, he was always kind, generous, and humble. George loved Amherst. We shared this love and yet understood the ‘kinks in the armor.’ He inspired me to not be afraid of the big challenges in life; we were built to them.”
And from John Williams’75, a fellow member of the board of trustees: “This is a sad day for the entire Amherst College community. George was simply a giant. His counsel was always among the wisest and soundest in the room. He was a great friend to me and to so many.”