Johnnie Tillmon

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Johnnie Tillmon
Johnnie Lee Percy

(1926-04-10)April 10, 1926
DiedNovember 22, 1995(1995-11-22) (aged 69)
Other namesJohnnie Tillmon
Organization(s)Aid to Needy Children Mothers Anonymous
National Welfare Rights Organization
Known forWelfare rights activist
MovementCivil rights movement
Welfare rights
Women's rights

Johnnie Tillmon Blackston (born Johnnie Lee Percy; April 10, 1926 – November 22, 1995) was an American welfare rights activist.[1] She is regarded as one of the most influential welfare rights activists in the country, whose work with the National Welfare Rights Organization influenced the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in particular.[2]

Early life[edit]

Tillmon was born into a family of sharecroppers on April 10, 1926.[3] When she was five years old, her mother died during childbirth and in 1944, she went to live with her aunt.[4] Tillmon never finished high school.[5]

She left to marry James Tillmon in 1948, but they divorced in 1952.[4] In 1959 she moved to California to join her brothers.[1] By that time she was a single mother to six children.[6]

Civil rights activism[edit]

The National Welfare Rights Organization and welfare rights[edit]

In California she found work as a union shop steward in a Compton laundry.[3] In 1963, she became ill, causing her to miss work. She then began to worry about her children growing up without proper supervision as a result of her job.[3] Instead of returning to work, she left her job and went on welfare.

After seeking public assistance, Tillmon became subject to harassment by welfare officials, including invasive "midnight raids," wherein officials would inspect residences looking for evidence of a hidden windfall, proof of a man in residence, or evidence of secret profits.[3] Seeing how people on welfare were treated, she organized mothers and welfare recipients in the Nickerson Garden housing project where she lived through the Nickerson Gardens Planning Organization.[1]

Within months, she and her friends had founded Aid to Needy Children-Mothers Anonymous, one of the first grassroots welfare mothers' organizations.[1] ANC Mothers Anonymous later became part of the National Welfare Rights Organization.[1] George Wiley, a chemist and civil rights activist, became the latter's first executive director while Tillmon served as its first chairman.[7] At its peak in the late 1960s, the organization had nearly 25,000 dues-paying members.[8]

In 1972, Wiley resigned and Tillmon moved to Washington to become the organization's executive director.[1] Though the organization was financially strained at that point, the role was a paying position which allowed her to go off welfare.[9] She served in this role until 1974, when the organization shut down due to lack of funds. She then returned to California where she worked as a legislative aid and served on welfare committees at both the state and local levels.[9]

Women's rights[edit]

While Wiley and his advisers tried to mobilize the working poor, especially white blue-collar workers, into the welfare rights movement, welfare mothers, led by Tillmon, sought to align with a women's movement and gain support from feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW).[1] The National Welfare Rights Organization was made up primarily of women, the group's members members were among the civil rights movement’s few women leaders, and the organization was one of the first to articulate the view that poverty was feminized.[citation needed] Tillmon herself attempted to broaden the horizons of the feminist movement by redefining poverty as a "women's issue," delivering speeches to mostly-female audiences in which she frequently compared the bureaucracy of welfare to a sexist marriage.[9]

Whereas the mainstream women's liberation movement was made up of younger, middle-class white women organizing around their right to join the workforce, the women of the welfare rights movement—consisting mostly of black women with organizers in Puerto Rican neighborhoods and on Native American reservations[8]—prioritized motherhood and making welfare a guaranteed right. At the time welfare programs could cancel or alter benefits if the recipients had more children or if a male partner moved in, and some welfare mothers were forcibly sterilized to prevent them from having more children.[10] Welfare rights activists fought for reproductive and sexual freedom for welfare mothers, arguing that the rules must be changed to allow women to make their own reproductive decisions.

In her landmark 1972 essay, "Welfare Is a Woman's Issue[11]," which was published in Ms.,[1] she emphasized women's right to adequate income, regardless of whether they worked in a factory or at home raising children.[12]

Later life, death and legacy[edit]

Tillmon married her second husband, Harvey Blackston, a blues harmonica player known as Harmonica Fats, in 1979. They lived together in Watts, in a house only a few blocks from Nickerson Gardens.[9]

Tillmon died at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles on November 22, 1995 at the age of 69. Her cause of death was diabetes.[5][3] Tillmon had used a wheelchair after the amputation of her left foot and was on dialysis for four years prior to her death.[3][9]

In 1996, Harmonica Fats released the album Blow, Fat Daddy, Blow! as a collaboration with Bernie Pearl. The album was dedicated to the memory of Tillmon.[13]

The National Union of the Homeless used what was called a "Johnnie Tillmon model" of organizing, named after her.[14]

Further reading[edit]

  • "Welfare is a Women's Issue" (1972), published in Ms., by Johnnie Tillmon
  • "Want to Start A Revolution? Radical Women In The Black Freedom Struggle" (2009), edited by Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard. Note: "Feminist Review" stated about this anthology: "These women stood at the intersection of racial, sexual, and class oppression, and often devoted themselves to working on all three fronts. A chapter on Johnnie Tillmon and the welfare rights movement explores this theme of poor Black women's triple exploitation..."[15]
  • "Welfare Mothers, Welfare Rights", a five-part oral history interview with Johnnie Tillmon conducted by Sherna Berger Gluck in 1991. From The Sixties: Los Angeles Area Social Movements/Activists collection at California State University, Long Beach.[16]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "Tillmon, Johnnie (1926–1995); The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed". The Black Past. 23 January 2007. Retrieved 2015-11-10.
  2. ^ Germain, Jacqui (24 December 2021). "The National Welfare Rights Organization Wanted Economic Justice for Black Americans". Teen Vogue. Archived from the original on 26 January 2022. Retrieved 26 January 2022.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Goldman, Abigail (25 November 1995). "Welfare Rights Pioneer Tillmon-Blackston Dies : Activism: In the 1960s, a single mother in a Watts housing project helped form a group that sought better treatment and services for the poor". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 26 January 2022. Retrieved 26 January 2022.
  4. ^ a b "American National Biography Online: Tillmon, Johnnie". Retrieved 2015-11-10.
  5. ^ a b "Johnnie Tillmon Blackston, Welfare Reformer, Dies at 69". New York Times. 27 November 1995. Archived from the original on 26 January 2022. Retrieved 26 January 2022.
  6. ^ "Content Pro IRX". Retrieved 2015-11-10.
  7. ^ Dorothy Sue Cobble (15 March 2007). The Sex of Class: Women Transforming American Labor. Cornell University Press. pp. 205–. ISBN 978-0-8014-8943-3.
  8. ^ a b Demby, Gene (9 June 2019). "The Mothers Who Fought To Radically Reimagine Welfare". NPR. Archived from the original on 26 January 2022. Retrieved 26 January 2022.
  9. ^ a b c d e Mitchell, John L. (9 July 1995). "THE SUNDAY PROFILE : A Dreamer and Her Dream Lose Ground". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 26 January 2022. Retrieved 26 January 2022.
  10. ^ Hutchison, Courtney (17 July 2011). "Sterilizing the Sick, Poor to Cut Welfare Costs: North Carolina's History of Eugenics". ABC News. Retrieved 26 January 2022.
  11. ^ Tillmon, Johnnie (Spring 1972). "Welfare Is a Women's Issue". Ms. (1). Retrieved 26 January 2022.
  12. ^ Tillmon, Johnnie (25 March 2021). "From the Vault: "Welfare is a Women's Issue" (Spring 1972)". Archived from the original on 26 January 2022. Retrieved 26 January 2022.
  13. ^ "About Harmonica Fats". Apple Music.
  14. ^ Baptist, Willie; Jan Rehman (2011). Pedagogy of the Poor. New York: Teachers College Press.
  15. ^ Charlotte Malerich (29 March 2010). "Review: Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle". Archived from the original on 8 July 2011.
  16. ^ "Welfare Mothers, Welfare Rights". Retrieved 2022-10-15.