She never bent in drive for justice
February 24, 2008
Published in The Baltimore Sun
Martin Luther King Jr. often said, "The arc of the moral universe is long,
but it bends toward justice," and these words came to mind the other day as we learned the story of Lorraine Johnson, one of the original plaintiffs in Thompson v. HUD, the 13-year-old lawsuit brought by tenants of Baltimore's public housing ghettos against the federal agency that kept them there for so long.
Johnson and other tenants had asked a federal judge to remedy decades of segregationist policies that left thousands of poor, black families stuck in the worst of living conditions.
U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis ruled that federal officials violated fair-housing laws by not taking a regional approach to give black families opportunities to live outside poverty-stricken, segregated neighborhoods. We're still waiting for Garbis' final opinion and proposed remedy.
More than a decade ago, under a consent decree, Baltimore's public high-rises - such as Murphy Homes, where Lorraine Johnson and her baby once lived - were demolished and redeveloped as mixed-income communities. The city and federal government agreed to provide hundreds of units for public housing residents in mostly white, middle-class areas of the city and the suburbs.
Lorraine Johnson did not live long enough to reap such benefits. The arc of the moral universe did not bend fast enough for her.
But attention must be paid. Here was a strong and dignified woman, a mother and a fighter, who wanted something better for herself and her daughter, Alesa. Her story represents the struggles of thousands of public-housing families to break the long cycle of poverty that was a reality of inner-city Baltimore throughout the 20th century.
By 1995, at the time the Thompson case was filed, Johnson had moved out of Murphy Homes - during a medical emergency involving her daughter, city paramedics were unable to use the high-rise's broken elevators - and was living in a subsidized unit on a narrow, dead-end street in Southwest Baltimore. There were drug dealers at one end of the block, a dump at the other.
Johnson described the conditions in a 2003 deposition, summing up in a few words the point of Thompson for the plaintiffs:
"It's a thing like when you live in a high-crime area, law enforcement seems to treat everybody that lives there like they are all criminals, you know. ... All the neighborhoods look the same. Poor black people, no real services, lots of drug dealing, lots of rodents. No trees. Nothing to look at. Nothing to really feel like you were accomplishing anything in life. You got up and went to work."
Barbara Samuels, the fair-housing lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, recalled Lorraine Johnson as a reserved but perceptive woman who first came into contact with the ACLU over her daughter's school.
"She was very unhappy with the physical conditions in her daughter's school, which she felt were not conducive to teaching or learning," says Samuels.
In 1994, Johnson was one of a group of city parents who went to City Hall for a private meeting with then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke.
Johnson read a statement at that meeting:
"My name is Lorraine Johnson and my daughter Alesa and I have lived in public housing since 1985," it said. "We have lived in four units of public housing. Each unit has been different in size and design but the one thing that has remained the same is the type of neighborhood. All the neighborhoods have been black, with abandoned houses, drug dealers on the corners and poorly funded schools. My daughter and I live with nightly sounds of gunfire. We seldom go out at night. ... We would like to move but affordable housing in better neighborhoods is out of my reach economically. ... I'm asking that future sites for public housing be located away from these situations, so that my daughter can have the opportunity for better housing, employment and education."
Shortly thereafter, Johnson became involved with the ACLU's housing advocacy.
"She was not by nature an activist or leader, but became one because of her daughter," says Samuels. "She was 100 percent committed to her daughter, and felt that she had to fight for better housing, a safer neighborhood and decent schools for her. Although she never set out to become a leader, Ms. Johnson was not afraid to speak out and could not be intimidated."
For a time, Johnson and her daughter lived in Latrobe Homes, close enough to the city jail to hear what she called "the invisible men" call out from their cells as Johnson and her daughter sat in their living room.
Determined to get out of drug-infested city neighborhoods, Johnson got her high school equivalency diploma, took some college courses, and completed a job-training program.
"She gained employment as a customer service representative," says Samuels. "For many years, she worked for Johns Hopkins Health in their Glen Burnie office and more recently at Bayview.
"She had a dream of becoming a homeowner, and when the Thompson homeownership programs were delayed for many years, struck out on her own and bought a house on Greenmount Avenue in Waverly. It was a beautiful old house, but very large, drafty and constantly in need of repair. She experienced health problems and was unable to keep up with the financial burden of the house, finally losing it to foreclosure last year.
"In July, Ms. Johnson and her now-23-year-daughter and grandson moved to a house in Baltimore County that would be convenient to her job at Bayview. Ms. Johnson was diagnosed with cancer in September, and passed away January 9."