If you’re playing Southern Jewish geography, there’s a good chance that Anthony Alann Johnson will come up in the conversation. Though he’s an ordained minister, he’s more active in the Atlanta Jewish community than most Jewish Atlantans and is an honorary member of The Temple.
Once one of the youngest people to serve in the Alabama House of Representatives when he lived in Birmingham, Johnson is running for the Atlanta City Council from District 11, which covers the Cascade area of Southwest Atlanta.
Mayoral candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms now represents the district, which includes Cascade and Campbellton roads. The district is 96 percent African-American, ranging from the wealthy to those below the poverty level, but Johnson said he wants to find a middle ground to repair the struggling area.
“I’ve always promised to pledge to be a representative of everybody in the district,” Johnson said. “I’ve been preaching for 20 years. I’m a licensed and ordained minister, and that means taking care of everybody — the haves and have-nots — and facilitating a better quality of life.”
Like many Atlanta neighborhoods, District 11 is undergoing redevelopment, resulting in displacement that Johnson said is turning his constituents off from the political process. In response, the city recently partnered with the Westside Future Fund to enact the Anti-Displacement Tax Fund Program, which pays the property tax increases of qualifying homeowners. District 11 is Atlanta’s first displacement-free zone.
Johnson is on a listening tour to engage residents about their neighborhood concerns. What Johnson has found so far is that basic needs are not being met.
“We’re visiting everyone in the district, from our poorest to our elderly. We’re advocating for the older generation to be protected against reverse mortgages,” Johnson said. “We need to make sure everyone, especially our seniors that have worked their entire lives, who own a home, are not run out of the neighborhoods.”
De-escalating crime is one of his priorities. Carjackings have risen sharply in Atlanta and in District 11 in recent years, a problem that gained attention when actress Queen Latifah became one of the victims.
Johnson has worked with Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves, another mayoral candidate, to combat crime.
“When it came to the carjackings, the thieves were running through the woods and behind the gas stations,” Johnson said. “We posted no-loitering signs, and Chairman Eaves approved millions of dollars to approve each gas station with an off-duty Fulton County sheriff.”
Day workers used the area to line up for jobs, gathering around 4 a.m. outside the parking lot of Arbor Terrace, a senior residence. Johnson is also looking at how he can create opportunities and bring vibrancy back into District 11.
The district’s next city councilman has as an advantage in an area that is ripe for economic growth. Infrastructure improvements are already being planned, and corporations such as UPS have found homes in District 11. Residents are on board with progress, but Johnson said more work must be done.
“Money is a solution, and I don’t want to raise taxes, but we need to take new approaches to find new monies,” he said. “Projections show our population is going to double in the next seven years. We have a lot of people with no jobs, and we have to make sure that we have jobs for everyone and everyone has a place to live.”
He embodies the spirit of tikkun olam (repairing the world) after years of volunteering with people.
Johnson comes from a line of 35 preachers and pastors, including the Rev. N.H. “Fireball” Smith Jr., co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Joseph Lowery, who is Johnson’s god-uncle.
The City Council candidate is also a mentee of Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham. What stands out about Johnson is that he wants to serve as much as he wants to lead, Rabbi Miller said.
“Atlanta is very blessed to have him, and he can be very effective there,” the rabbi said. “If you want something done, Anthony will get it done. He exudes confidence, and I have confidence in him.”
Johnson became interested in Judaism when he moved back to Birmingham from Atlanta to take care of his ailing grandfather and began to preach. He took up Hebrew classes and dedicated his life to the community. He also is a strong advocate of Israel.
“He looks out for his people — African-Americans and Jewish people,” Rabbi Miller said.
His determination to connect to the black and Jewish communities impressed Doug Ross, the Atlanta chairman for AIPAC and the Birthright Israel Foundation.
“Anthony’s commitment to Israel and to strengthening black-Jewish relations is inspirational,” Ross said. “He is a great and valued friend of the Jewish community.”
Johnson’s service in the community has been heavily influenced by his childhood growing up among the Jews of Birmingham, who positioned themselves as advocates for African-Americans, Johnson said. “They were seen as people who opened their hearts and minds and worked to collaborate with the African-American community.”
The move back to Atlanta was an easy transition in part because of the Jewish community here, said Johnson, who has completed his second year of Hebrew classes at The Temple.
“One thing I’ve learned is that Jewish geography is real. I really feel like I’m family. I’ve sat at the feet of great rabbis, and they are my foundation,” Johnson said. “I thank G-d for the chesed, or the lovingkindness and grace, that Jews show one another.”