Johnny Jackson

Johnny Jackson (image via WWL-TV)

Johnny Jackson Jr., a former New Orleans city councilman, state representative and 9th Ward community leader, died Wednesday. He was 74.

From 1986 to 1994, Jackson served as the District E representative on the City Council, representing New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward. Prior to his two terms at City Hall, he served in the state House of Representatives for 14 years.

A New Orleans native, Jackson was a graduate of George Washington Carver High School and Southern University at New Orleans.

He was director of the Desire Community Center at the time of the 1970 standoff between New Orleans police and members of the Black Panther Party, who used the center to offer breakfast and tutoring programs for children.

He was elected to the Legislature in 1971 as the body’s third African-American member, following Ernest “Dutch” Morial, who would later be elected the city’s first African-American mayor, and future City Councilwoman Dorothy Mae Taylor.

“It was a challenging situation for me,” Jackson said in an interview with the University of New Orleans Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies. “There were new doors of not only opportunity, but also new doors of challenges to make sure that blacks were involved in all aspects of state government.”

Jackson was a founding member of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus. “I think we got the respect of other legislators who realized we were a force to be dealt with,” he said in the interview. He also served as a delegate to the 1973 convention that rewrote the state constitution.

He was recruited to run for the Legislature by Sherman Copelin and other leaders of the 9th Ward political organization known as SOUL. He was a member of that group and later a founding member of another political group, DAWN.

On the City Council, Jackson was a strong advocate for his district, seeking economic opportunity and improved city services for its residents. He was also known for taking a stand for human rights, pushing legislation aimed at ensuring equal treatment of all residents, particularly gay and lesbian citizens.

"I pride myself on being a voice of consciousness, but also on having diverse interests," he told The Times-Picayune in 1994.

"People trusted him because he fought for them. He stood up for them," longtime colleague Jim Singleton said Thursday. "People trusted him because they felt that he was doing what he did for them."

Jackson was a former board member of Total Community Action Inc., the New Orleans East Economic Development Foundation, the Desire-Florida Area Community Council, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, WWOZ Radio and the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club.

Jackson was criticized in the 1990s for having given himself a Tulane University legislative scholarship to earn a master’s degree in social work while serving as a state lawmaker. Jackson’s daughters were also awarded scholarships by other politicians.

Though he initially defended his decision to give himself the scholarship, he later came to regret it. "The prevailing ethics at the time were such that it was not illegal or unethical for me to take the scholarship," he told The Times-Picayune in 1994. "It's not something that I would ever do again."

The scholarship scandal likely contributed to Jackson’s loss in a 1994 campaign for an at-large seat on the City Council.

Singleton said he and Jackson were political rivals just once, when both were running for an at-large seat that year because they were term-limited from seeking their district seats again. Singleton won but said the rivalry did not disturb their friendship.

Recalling his roles in voter registration drives, the 1973 Constitutional Convention and eight years of council battles, he fought back tears at his final meeting as he said, "I've had some good days and some bad days, and I've had some hills to climb, but the good days outweigh the bad days and I won't complain." 

After several years in private business, he made a run in 2003 for clerk of Criminal District Court. He led in the primary but lost a runoff to Kimberly Williamson Butler, the former chief administrative officer under Mayor Ray Nagin.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated the 9th Ward and Jackson's home, he spent two days in the Morial Convention Center with relatives before making his way to the West Bank and eventually returning to New Orleans years later, according to a 2007 article in Gambit by author Jason Berry. 

He also lived in Texas in recent years.

Peggy Wilson, the City Council's only Republican during Jackson's tenure and a political opponent on many issues, said she last saw Jackson a year or two ago when he was visiting from Houston, and that she told him he looked good, trim and well-dressed.

"He teased me that it was because he was living in a Republican neighborhood," she said Thursday.

Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

Cathy Hughes contributed to this article.