Former U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Black Democratic trailblazer, dies at 89

Rep. Ernie Bernice Johnson, D-TX 30th District, has been a Congresswoman since 1993. Photographed at her office in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., on July 10, 2019.
Retired U.S. Rep. Ernie Bernice Johnson, a towering Democrat from Dallas, died Sunday. Credit: Lexey Swall/GRAIN

Retired U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson has died, her family said Sunday on social media. She was 89.

A towering Dallas political figure — once a nurse, state legislator and congresswoman — Johnson was the dean of the Texas Congressional delegation before retiring from office in 2022. She proved effective at her work due to her long tenure serving in the U.S. House — nearly 30 years at the time of her passing — and a pragmatist streak that made her open to working with Republicans.

"I am heartbroken to share the news that my mother, Eddie Bernice Johnson, has passed away," Johnson's son, Kirk Johnson, wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday. "She was a remarkable and loving mother, mother-in-law, grandmother and great grandmother, as well as a trailblazer and public servant. While we mourn the loss of an extraordinary woman, we celebrate her life and legacy."

[As she prepares to leave Congress, Eddie Bernice Johnson fears a rollback in the civil rights she fought decades to advance]

Born in Waco on Dec. 3, 1934, Johnson became one of the most powerful Texas Democrats in recent memory to serve on Capitol Hill. She was the lone Texas-based committee chair in either chamber when she became the chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.

She broke many glass ceilings: she was the first Black woman elected to any seat in Dallas, she was the first nurse and Black Dallasite to serve in Congress, and she was only the third Texas woman — behind Lera Thomas and Barbara Jordan, both from Houston — to represent the state in the U.S. House.

“I am stunned and saddened to learn of the passing of my dear friend, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson,” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson wrote on X Sunday morning. “Congresswoman Johnson was a groundbreaking leader for this country and for our state and city, and there really are no words to express my profound sense of grief and loss at the passing of this legendary American.”

Johnson will lie in state at the Hall of State in Dallas' Fair Park on Monday, Jan 8 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and a wake service will follow at Concord Church from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Johnson's funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Concord Church. A graveside service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Jan. 10 at Texas State Cemetery in Austin before Johnson is laid to rest.

Johnson’s ascent

Johnson said her first introduction to a career in fighting racial injustice came when she was in elementary school. That’s when she met Doris “Dorie” Miller, a Black Navy man who was relegated to mess duties due to segregation policies while stationed at Pearl Harbor in 1941. During the Dec. 7 attack, he joined the combat to shoot down Japanese planes with no munitions training, becoming a heralded war hero.

“I met Mr. Miller when I was in the first grade. I shook his hand and I just knew that I wanted to do something to thank him for his service in the military," she told KXAS in 2020. "I collected money in my neighborhood to buy him something nice for his return, but he never made it back."

Miller died when a torpedo struck his ship in the Pacific theater in 1943.

Decades later, Johnson helped get a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier named after Miller, which was the first to be named after a Black man.

After graduating from A.J. Moore High School in 1952, Johnson sought to work in the medical field. Segregated Texas had no nursing program she could attend, so she went to St. Mary’s College at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, where she received a nursing certificate in 1955. She received a bachelor’s of science from Texas Christian University in 1967, followed by a master’s of public administration from Southern Methodist University in 1976.

Soon after finishing nursing school in South Bend, she accepted a job to work for the Veterans Administration hospital in Dallas.

"My father worked for the V.A. in Waco, and two members of the same family couldn't work for the same federal facility, so I applied for a position in Dallas, and they accepted me. When I showed up, they were shocked that I was Black. They hadn't had any black professionals at all at that time in Dallas,” she told Dallas reporter Jim Schutze in 1985.

"I had never witnessed the kind of extreme separatism,” she added. “In Waco they had 'Colored' and 'White' signs all over, and there was a history of lynchings. But, in Dallas, the overt racism immediately became clear.”

Eventually, Johnson became the chief psychiatric nurse and psychotherapist at the Veterans Administration hospital in Dallas. She was the first Black female chief psychiatric nurse at the hospital.

High-end Dallas retailers barred her from entering their stores until she befriended a white saleswoman at Neiman Marcus who welcomed her. The CEO of Neiman Marcus at the time was civic leader Stanley Marcus, who spotted Johnson’s potential and groomed her into a new generational leader of the Dallas Black community.He offered her a job at the retailer on the condition that she run for the Texas Legislature. In 1972, she was elected to the state House of Representatives.

That year Johnson made what would become an important political alliance, working with a young Democratic staffer named Bill Clinton who was sent to the state in support of George McGovern’s presidential campaign that year.

Once sworn into the state House, Johnson encountered another hero: Lyndon Baines Johnson. She recalled in 2014 to The Waco Tribune that she saw him in January 1973 with her son when he visited the Texas Capitol. He died a week later of a heart attack.

During her third term in the Texas House, Johnson resigned to accept a post in the Carter administration as a regional appointee for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services). She was reelected to the Legislature in 1986, this time in the Senate.

From her perch chairing the Senate Committee on Redistricting in the early 1990s, Johnson is widely credited with drawing a version of the newly-formed 30th Congressional District that overlapped heavily with her state legislative constituency.

That district, which is anchored in Dallas, is one of the bluest districts in Texas.

Congressional career

Johnson would go on to win the Congressional district she helped create in 1992. She regularly sailed to reelection in every contest to follow.

When Johnson was first sworn into Congress, she was the only woman in the state’s U.S. House delegation. Now there are eight women serving the state in the U.S. House, including Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, who was elected with Johnson’s endorsement to replace the retiring congresswoman.

Johnson’s start in Washington matched the political ascent of her close friend, Clinton, to the presidency. Five years later, the Almanac of American Politics credited Johnson as a key player in consolidating Black support behind Clinton when Republicans impeached him for perjury and obstruction of justice in 1998.

Her career was not without controversy. Johnson came under a hail of criticism in 2010 when The Dallas Morning News reported that she directed scholarship money toward relatives and the children of aides from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, a violation of the group’s anti-nepotism rules.

From 2001-2003, Johnson served as the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, a powerful voting bloc in the U.S. House. In objection to what she deemed an illegitimate 2000 presidential election, Johnson led the caucus out of the House chamber in protest in early 2001 when Congress met for its ceremonial certification of the electoral college victory of her fellow Texan, President George W. Bush.

Later that year, Johnson was among those who evacuated the Capitol complex when a hijacked plane raced toward Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001.

A little under two years later, she cast her most consequential vote — against giving Bush the authorization to use armed forces in Iraq.

“I am awed by the moral weight of this decision,” she said on the House floor on Oct. 8, 2002.

“No one desires to be on the opposite side of our president in times like these, but I regret to tell my colleagues that I am unable to support this resolution in its present form.”

At the same time, Johnson was known among Texas Republican members as a Democrat who took initiative to work together on parochial issues of concern to the state.

The 2008 Democratic presidential primary marked, perhaps, the most fraught political moment in her career. Early on, she backed former U.S. Sen. John Edwards for the nomination. But as soon as he withdrew from the race, both Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama pounced to win her backing. By that time in the presidential contest, the fight began to shift from voters and caucus-goers to Democratic “superdelegates” like Johnson.

Johnson ultimately backed Obama, but she telegraphed years later the scale of the distress that choice put on her.

Johnson got behind Hillary Clinton’s second presidential campaign early in 2016 and backed former Vice President Joe Biden early in his 2020 presidential contest.

In 2019, Johnson became chairwoman of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, a Congressional oversight panel that had its roots in the American response to the Russian launch of Sputnik.

In that role, she was the top Democrat overseeing NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Weather Service and parts of the Department of Energy and the Department of Transportation.

During President Donald Trump’s final two years in office, she was a top critic of his administration’s unwillingness to embrace policies to significantly combat global warming.

Johnson delivered millions of dollars in improvements for North Texas, including federal grant funding to expand the Dallas light rail to accommodate more riders and longer trains. In a nod to Johnson’s unique place in Dallas history, city leaders renamed the city’s downtown train station in honor of Johnson in 2016, on the station’s 100th birthday.

News of Johnson's passing prompted an outpouring of support from friends and public officials.

Colin Allred, a Dallas congressman, credited Johnson for helping him pave the way for his leadership.

“I would not be here today if it weren’t for Congresswoman Johnson and the doors she opened for a new generation of Texans in public service," Allred said in a statement. "Everywhere you look, Texans can see the mark she made on our state — from improving the VA, to investing in transportation, to fighting for Texans’ civil rights, to her work to pass the CHIPS Act and invest in high-tech manufacturing as Chair of the House Science Committee."

Crockett, who replaced Johnson in the U.S. House, said she was honored when Johnson called her and asked her to run for the District 30 seat, even though Crockett was only a freshman in the Texas House at the time.

"Never in my wildest dreams would I think that she was aware of anything that I was doing in the House," Crockett said in a statement. "But that is the thing about her: She never slept. She was always working."

"The Chairwoman didn't take passing the torch on lightly, and likewise, I've not taken it lightly that she entrusted me to honor her work and legacy," Crockett added. "Everyday that passes is a day I dedicate to continuing her work and attempting to fill her shoes."

Johnson had a son, Kirk, and three grandsons, Kirk Jr., David and James. She was married to Lacey Kirk Johnson until 1970.

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Correction, Jan. 4, 2024 at 4:14 p.m. : A previous version of this story misstated Johnson's age and birthdate. She was 89 and was born on Dec. 3, 1934.

Clarification, Dec. 31, 2023 at 3:33 p.m. : This story has been updated to clarify that Joe Biden was not serving as vice president when he ran for president in 2020.