As a young teacher in an all-Black segregated school in Enfield, North Carolina, Willa Johnson taught her students how to register to vote, and those students went home and taught their parents.
Then, Willa Johnson was summoned to the principal’s office and summarily fired.
She petitioned and picketed to end segregation in her town, and the Klan burned a 17-foot-cross in her yard. To this day, she remembers standing on her porch, with her five-year-old daughter in arms, watching that flaming symbol of hatred and intimidation.
With NEA’s help, Willa Johnson won a groundbreaking unfair teacher dismissal case. But no school district would hire her because she was “too controversial,” which at that time – the 1960s – and in that place – eastern North Carolina’s Black Belt – meant she had the courage to stand up for what is right.
Willa Johnson eventually became Willa Johnson Cofield, moved to New Jersey, and earned a Ph.D. in urban planning from Rutgers University. She also became a documentary film maker while continuing to be a social justice activist. Every year she marches in Newark’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Day March for Racial Equality, Economic Justice and Peace, sponsored by the People’s Organization For Progress.
Now 87, Willa Johnson Cofield loves to talk with students and young educators. “Yes, we’ve made progress but the fight for racial equality is far from over. We must get involved in the political process and make sure minority people register and vote. In addition, we must engage in direct action to protest police brutality and the terrible conditions in which too many Black people still live. Black lives matter.”
Among the many young educators inspired by Willa Johnson Cofield’s story and message is Jaalil Hart. He is a young kindergarten teacher back in her home state of North Carolina, which has passed one of the most restrictive voter suppression laws in the nation, making it more difficult for minorities, the elderly and students to vote.
“Teachers like Willa Johnson Cofield paved the way for young teachers like me who are passionate about the same issues,” says Jaalil Hart. When he was president of the NEA Student Chapter at North Carolina A & T University, Hart was actively engaged in the fight for student voting rights. And today, when not in his Wake County classroom, Jaalil Hart helps people register to vote.
“After talking with grandparents and great grans about what they had to do” says Jaalil Hart, “I find it personally important to do what my great grans couldn’t do. And like Willa Johnson Cofield, we need to do everything we can to make sure everyone has the opportunity to vote.”