John Lee Johnson was born and raised in Champaign and never left town, but he sure didn't have a privileged pedigree. He had no more than a high school education. When you saw him around town – and he was ubiquitous – he was inevitably walking. He didn't even have a profession, aside from the vague, ever-evolving title of "black activist" or "community organizer" or "community leader."
But through sheer brashness and audacity, a simple eloquence, and more than anything a genuine concern for Champaign-Urbana, Johnson was for decades the principle spokesman for the black community in Champaign-Urbana.
Long before he ran for and won a seat on the Champaign City Council in 1973, Johnson was leading the People's Poverty Board, the Coordinating Council for Quality Education, the Concerned Citizens Committee, Project ENABLE and the Community Advocacy Depot. When the University of Illinois YMCA needed someone to speak on "Thoughts of a Negro Revolutionary," it turned to Johnson.
There were times – such as that 1968 speech at the YMCA – when Johnson could be angry, caustic and bellicose. But that was not the real John Lee Johnson. The real John Lee worked through the system, whether it was prodding the city government to begin hiring black police and firemen, persuading the University of Illinois to open its doors to more blacks, getting local banks to stop redlining or using the courts to improve educational opportunities for minorities. He worked with a series of white mayors of Champaign to clear out substandard housing in the old North End, to improve police protection and service in African-American neighborhoods and to work for better educational opportunities.
During his nearly 40 years as a very public private citizen, John Lee Johnson helped make Champaign-Urbana a better community, especially for the less privileged.