‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Those were the words Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. penned from a Birmingham jail in 1963. They are the words that came to mind for many of us who spent time with Grantland Johnson during the final days of his life.
We were reminded of the famous quote because it’s rare to witness such a profound statement resonate as a call to action, and also to see it shape people we know in such extraordinary ways. Johnson was one of those people.
Raised in “the Heights,” as he called Sacramento’s Del Paso Heights neighborhood, he never lost sight of where he came from or where he was going. Growing up as he did – a young African American surrounded by chronic economic, educational and social disparities – the civil rights movement motivated him during an impressionable time as a teenager and young adult.
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Johnson first used that motivation as a student to effect change on and off campus. His blossoming activism questioned the status quo and addressed injustice. It was also an important part of his personal development, showing him it was one thing to bring attention to problems such as institutional racism, but something quite different to do anything meaningful about them.
I remember my late father, Joe Serna Jr., Johnson’s close friend and colleague, telling me that while so many of his contemporaries during the 1960s “dropped out” with an emerging counterculture, he was trying to “drop in” as a former farmworker kid from Acampo.
Johnson shared that intent. To achieve real change, you have to engage the institutions that for too long have excluded people and propagated inequality. You can influence social change, he once told me, from the inside out.
This ethic was obvious when he served on the Sacramento Regional Transit board of directors and helped improve bus service for under-served communities. He clearly put it into practice on the Sacramento City Council, where he was instrumental in establishing a Neighborhood Services Department. And as I like to believe, that guiding principle was most pronounced when as a Sacramento County supervisor he reminded everyone, sometimes forcefully, that the most critical aspect of county governance is helping the young, old, poor and sick – a page from his playbook I use frequently.
President Bill Clinton and California Gov. Gray Davis also saw in him a distinctive ability to effect change on even larger public policy stages, as regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and as California’s secretary of health and human services.
So intense was his passion to shape public policy that Johnson is the only local individual who has been elected to municipal and county offices and appointed to serve at the state and federal levels. As remarkable as that accomplishment is, Johnson would say that it is what one does with those opportunities that matters most, not the titles and praise.
This was part of his humble character that at all times let you know you were dealing with a true servant’s heart. Together with an unmatched intellect when it came to environmental justice, social equity and elective politics, he was a giant despite his diminutive stature.
During his last days, it was very difficult for me and others to see our giant’s body failing him. We shared tears, laughs and great stories that will sustain us for years to come. I had a brief conversation with him shortly before his passing. I told him I loved him and promised to keep helping those who need help the most. We parted as we always had – with a three-grip handshake and hug.
As much as we will continue to miss our friend, husband, father and brother, all of us can take comfort in knowing that those words from a Birmingham jail were never taken more seriously than by Grantland Lee Johnson. We are all better off for it, and his memory lives on as others take Dr. King’s words to heart and commit themselves as the next generation to lead social change and improve our communities.