As soon as word spread of Grantland Johnson’s passing, the tributes poured in from public officials. It’s a good bet, though, that he would have taken more pride in praise from everyday folks in the communities he served.
Johnson, who died Tuesday at age 65, is described as a trailblazer. That doesn’t quite do him justice, though he did break barriers.
Elected to the Sacramento City Council in 1983, he advocated for disadvantaged neighborhoods, including Del Paso Heights, where he grew up. In 1986, he made history as the first African American elected to the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.
Yet he also transcended racial lines and built bridges among diverse communities. Committed to helping all the less fortunate, he led the charge for affordable housing. And he didn’t shy from disagreeing with other black leaders.
For instance, as Regional Transit board chairman, Johnson backed the removal of the agency’s black leader due to declining bus service. “That took a level of courage that damn few people ever exhibit in life,” former Mayor Phil Isenberg, who appointed Johnson to the RT board, told The Bee.
Even in elected office, he never lost the activism of his college years, as recounted by The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila. Johnson walked picket lines, manned voter registration booths and in 1985 caused a stir by getting arrested during an anti-apartheid protest outside the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C.
He also made a mark in state and federal government. In 1993, he joined the Clinton administration as Western regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Six years later, he became director of the California Health and Welfare Agency, where he served until 2003.
With that record of public service, it’s no wonder that Congresswoman Doris Matsui called him “an unparalleled leader” and state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg described him as a “revered figure.”
While revered, he wasn’t remote. Just as former Mayor Joe Serna Jr., who taught Johnson at Sacramento State, became a mentor and political ally, Johnson did the same for others.
Dave Jones, a former Sacramento City Council member and now state insurance commissioner, tells how just after he arrived in Sacramento in 1988, Johnson took him to lunch. They talked about fighting for civil rights and improving neighborhoods and began a lasting friendship. In a statement, Jones said he visited Johnson last month and “despite his illness, he was still brimming with ideas and policy proposals to make Sacramento and California a better place.”
Politicians come and go. Few leave a real legacy. Grantland Johnson certainly did, and Sacramento is better for it.