Harriet McBryde Johnson: A Tribute

In June 1999, while I was studying for the South Carolina Bar Exam, an event occurred many miles away that would significantly impact my life. The United States Supreme Court decided Olmstead v. LC on June 22, 1999. (If you’re not familiar with this landmark decision, please read it or about it)

I know, you’re wondering “What does this have to do with Harriet?”

Read on.

My first job out of law school was at Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc. (P&A) as the PAIMI attorney. Most of my time was spent in mental health institutions working on civil rights for people with serious mental illness. And then in January 2000, I was asked to work to implement the Olmstead decision in South Carolina.

That’s when Harriet entered my life.

I’d heard about Harriet. Much. She was tenacious. She was a force to be reckoned with. But I’d not yet met her. Harriet was a board member at P&A and at one time had worked there. Now she was a successful attorney in Charleston. I couldn’t wait to meet this woman who struck fear in some and awe in others.

And then she came to a meeting. A small woman with a long braid in a big wheelchair. We exchanged greetings and the meeting started. We discussed the usual stuff. And then she spoke. Wow. She didn’t yell. She didn’t rant. She spoke. With feeling. With knowledge. With personal conviction. Harriet won me over.

Over the next several years, I would work with Harriet on some projects, even give joint presentations. I read her books. Her short stories. I brought her to tears once with a personal story. (I didn’t mean to do that) We lunched together. Then we no longer lunched together because of special diet restrictions.

I told her I admired her. She questioned me “why? Because I’m in a chair and I do things?” I stammered and stumbled all over my words. I wish I’d been able to answer her appropriately that I admired her simply because she inspired me to be a better person. A better attorney.

Harriet didn’t relinquish much. And she didn’t turn away from a fight. She was a great woman and a great attorney.

July 8, 2009 would have been Harriet’s 52nd birthday.

And July 8, 2009 there will be a concert in Charleston to benefit the Harriet McBryde Johnson scholarship. Details below from SCWLA:

Music will focus on Latin music and protest songs.  Leah Suarez and Lindsay Holler will be the featured performers.  The event is July 8th at 7 pm at Circular Church, 150 Meeting Street, Charleston, South Carolina.  The suggested donation is $10.00. 

If you cannot attend, but would like to send a contribution:
Checks should be written to:  USC Educational Foundation, Memo line “Harriet M. Johnson Scholarship”  

Mailed to:   Office of Development USC, School of Law 701 S. Main Street Columbia, SC 29208   For more information, contact Susan Dunn at 830-1571, skingdunn@aol.com.

-RFW