(The political offices – Shelby County Commissioner, Memphis City Council member and Criminal Court Clerk – don't begin to tell the story of Minerva J. Johnican, who died last Friday (March 8) at Methodist University Hospital. She was 74. Former state Rep. Kathryn Bowers shares her unique view of the late Memphis trailblazer.)
Almost 42 years ago (March 24, 1971), the U.S. Congress passed the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, looking to clear obstacles to 18 year olds securing the right to vote. That "right" became official on July 1, 1971 when North Carolina ratified the Amendment. No Amendment had been ratified in a shorter period of time.
In 1970, an amendment to the 1965 Voting Rights Act had paved the way for 18 year olds to vote but it was determined that a Constitutional Amendment was required to apply in state and local elections.
In Memphis, Inner-City Voter Education, Inc. – a non-partisan non-profit organization – was born in 1970. Minerva Johnican and I co-chaired and Yvonne Acey was the publicity chairman.
We were three young ladies embarking upon an awesome task of registering the new enfranchised voters. It was important to us that they become participants in the voting process but they also must be educated as well. We agreed with President Eisenhower, who in his state of the Union message in 1954, said, "For years our citizens between the ages of 18 and 21 have, in time of peril, been summoned to fight for America. They should participate in the political process that produces this fateful summons."
We were not old enough to vote at that time but we heard the message as well as others across the nation. The Inner-City Voter Education Committee hit the City of Memphis like a reverse windstorm, not blowing the tall trees down but making them stand tall and upright. We got teen members as part of our organization who had not yet graduated from high school and some were college students. At LeMoyne-Owen College, we had "Right On Workshops," which included known speakers to educate and to motivate.
We recruited members of the so-called radical groups to join us, The Black Panthers, Invaders and CORE. They became our security and kept the peace, but most of all they helped to spread the message.
We worked with the NAACP and the League of Women Voters. We also had support from large corporations like Tri-State Bank, Stax Recording Studio and Coca-Cola. Though our efforts, in less than one year we had registered tens of thousands of new voters.
Our efforts were so successful that the leadership in Memphis felt somewhat threatened, but all we wanted to do was register voters. We even got the attention of John Lewis out of Atlanta, who was chairman of Voter Education, Inc. He came to Memphis at our request to help us reach our goal. He is now a Congressman from Georgia.
We also got the attention of New York Congresswoman Shirley Chism, who was running in the Democrat Primary for President of the United States. She was the first African-American woman to run for president. She also came to Memphis at our request and it was a huge success in increasing our volunteer numbers. If you have ever heard "Unbossed and Unbought," that was Shirley Chism's campaign logo in 1972. Minerva adopted her slogan.
In 1972, the country was electing a president and we got busy working on the delegate selection process. Not only did we get elected, but all the delegates from Shelby County had to come through our caucus because we had the numbers. This was the first Democrat National Convention that was open to more minorities and women.
We were hell bent on going to Florida to vote for Shirley Chism, but George Wallace won the State of Tennessee with a winner take all system. We were bound by law to vote for George Wallace but we issued a press statement stating that we would not vote for him.
As a result, we received numerous death threats to the extent that we had to inform law enforcement and obtain legal counsel. We were informed that since we would be in Florida, Tennessee could not enforce Tennessee law there. Not only did we vote for Shirley Chism, but we ran her campaign committee at the convention.
We could see that our "wind storm" was causing some of our leadership to have concerns about what we were doing. We decided it was time for the leadership to come together. Time was out for all the divisiveness, political brokering and no plan for the future.
Some of the leaders would not even come in the same room together. Memphis was the city where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and that should have been a wake-up call for the leadership to come together. We were not attempting – nor did we have the desire – to be leaders. We just wanted to register and educate the voters.
In secret, we put together an elaborate, first-class leadership summit, with beautiful invitations fit for a president and we sent them registered mail. We did not tell them that we were calling the meeting. Some way the cat got out of the bag and only one person showed up. That meeting is still waiting to be held today, but we tried.
Minerva was there for every movement, including the women's liberation movement. She organized the Volunteer Women's Roundtable. It was a statewide, bi-racial group that was made up of professional and community women. The group focused on uplifting women.
I think the only movements Minerva did not get involved in were your personal movements that only you can make.
Several weeks ago, she told me she was ready to go home and that if I didn't like it, I was being selfish.
So I am happy she got her wish. Until the end, Minerva Jane Johnican was "Unbossed and Unbought."