How Johnnie Tillmon Set out to Make the World Aware of Welfare!

author-img By sagnika sinha 5 Mins Read 11 September 2023

Johnnie Tillmon

Do you know about welfare women community? Who is Johnnie Tillmon? She might not be a household name but let me tell you her history which will make you realize how interrelated her effort is with your existence in U.S.? She is one of the famous black women in history!

Her perception was very clear from day one, it is all about considering how we work towards improving poor women’s welfare. She said, “Maybe we poor welfare women will really liberate women in this country.”

It is also an important way of considering how poor women work towards overall welfare and liberation in that time. It was one of the foundation stone for the establishment of the welfare of women of color! Let us dive deeper into the overall changes which she made for the improvement of society.

How Johnnie Tillmon Set out to Make the World Aware of Welfare!

How Johnnie Tillmon Set out to make the World aware of Welfare

Johnnie Tillmon is one of the leading women in the welfare rights activism! She was a hardcore activist and a feminist who wanted equality in life. With the organization of the welfare committee, Tillmon went ahead towards creating a better world for working black women.

The members of her institutions mostly belonged to her Los Angeles housing project! They went ahead to organize a plan where black “welfare mothers” could demand their rights based on the common crisis and conditions of these women. Furthermore, it also led to a collaboration with Dr Martin Luther King!

It was King who cited the organizing sound of welfare created by Tillmon in his own shift towards addressing class issues and poverty. A poor people’s campaign was organized by King of which Tillmon became a huge supporter in 1968 along with several other U.S. radicals namely Cesar Chavez.

Who is Johnnie Tillmon?

Who is Johnnie Tillmon

Born in 1926 in Scott, Arkansas, Johnnie Tillmon was the daughter of a migrant sharecropper. For most of her life, she lived in poverty. She was not able to finish high school because her family did not have enough money.

Let me share some uncommon facts about black women, especially when she has achieved milestones for the community. She was married in 1948 but soon got divorced a few years later! She was at that time, a single mother to six young children.

It was in 1959 that Tillmon moved to California and started working as a union ship steward. She was significantly underpaid in this profession. Johnnie Tillmon used to work in a Compton laundry, but she became very ill in 1963! She had to consistently miss work due to it.

What did She do?

What did She Do

Someone advised her to seek welfare, but she learned over some time that the caseworkers constantly harassed the welfare recipients. This is how she started working towards human rights and almost 10 years later, she created an important welfare movement.

She started organizing people to create an organization called ANC (Aid to Needy Children). The people were from the housing project who became this community working towards the welfare of mothers.

The organization she created is the first grassroots welfare mothers’ institution which later collaborated with the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). She was the executive director of the organization in Washington from 1972 to 1974.

She soon became the leader of this community and a chairperson of the NWRO. Welfare mothers along with Tillmon worked hard to bring justice, adequate income, democratic participation and dignity. She then became one of the most popular American welfare rights activists.

Why did She do It?

So, when she fell sick very often and could not go to work, she had to stay at home, it was then that she realized that her kids were lacking adult supervision. Even though the new deal by FDR had some welfare benefits yet, the system was filled with fraud.

There was still inequality and cruelty towards women in the system. It went to an extreme where the welfare officials literally raided the recipient’s homes. The “midnight raids” were conducted to check for hidden windfalls in the homes of the recipients.

Apparently, the searches led to American women being disqualified from the welfare benefits if a man was found in her home. This was because it was assumed that the man was there for the women to depend on him thus, they did not need any help or support.  

There was also the opportunity of receiving child benefits. The welfare officials literally sterilized women to check whether they deserve the support not. Clearly a monstrously intrusive and grotesque approach, Johnnie Tillmon experienced it regularly. I find some similarities between Tillmon and Rosa Parks, don’t you think so?

She also saw how other women constantly went through this kind of torture! That is when Tillmon along with another activist, Audre Lorde worked hard and raised their voices against the oppression against the working-class black women.

Johnnie Tillmon and Civil Rights Movement

Johnnie Tillmon and Civil Rights Movement

The Civil Rights movement was at its peak when Tillmon got involved in it! She even helped with the campaign organized by Martin Luther King called the Poor People’s Campaign. It was her initiative through which other strong working black women came to the forefront!

During the civil rights movement, she was an active member along with being a feminist at the core. She struggled hard towards gaining justice for the people who could not stand for themselves, especially black people.

Tillmon also published an essay, “Welfare is a Woman’s issue” in 1972 in the Feminist magazine, Ms. She even reached out to groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW). Apart from that, she also argued towards equal access to all workplaces to women.

According to her, she did not want poor black women to be restricted solely on welfare support and money. It is important to consider how their children were suffering everyday due to the injustices of the welfare support committee and department.

When talking about welfare, Tillmon said, “welfare is like a super-sexist marriage. You trade in a man for the man. But you can’t divorce him if he treats you bad...” aspects such as these were the highlight of her movement along with her talking about the need for women to feel liberated in this country. 

She tried to address how welfare for women is a means of their overall survival and growth. It is a matter of concern that the government is not as aware as it should be towards them!

The Ending…

It was in 1979 that Johnnie Tillmon got married to jazz musician Harvey Blackston! As an activist, she continued living in Los Angeles while working as an activist. During that time, she was heading the National Welfare Rights Organization on the local level.

A committed welfare rights activist, Johnnie Tillmon died at the age of 69 in 1995. We still remember her as her name graces several housing developments and day care centers! Her lasting impression on “welfare as a women’s issue” proves the concern that we still need women like her to bring changes in the social setting.

As a significant leader in the civil rights world, Tillmon raised her voice on how the society needs women to spread awareness about welfare. Women are often let go as compared to men when it comes to professional concerns and responsibilities.

Through the National Welfare Rights Organization, a comprehensive plan was created for welfare reform, this was a step towards rejecting and eliminating all types of sexism practices in the system. If you have been inspired by the practices and preachings of Tillmon, then you have the fire of people’s rights and welfare in your heart!

Finishing Off…

In short, Johnnie Tillman is a significant role model in the era of women’s rights activism and welfare. I am sure you have become inspired with the beautiful and inspirational steps Tillmon has taken to ensure that women receive welfare.

In my opinion, women are not dependent on a man however, with the way the society is shaped, it becomes quite hard for a lot of women to make it alone. They are expected to behave a certain way when it comes to making decisions or taking responsibilities.

It is maybe time to raise that voice for the welfare of others. Comment on which rights activist is more appropriate in making people aware of human rights concerns!

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sagnika sinha

Sagnika Sinha is a content writer who is passionate about writing travel vlogs, entertainment and celebrity articles and literature-based pieces. With a 4 years experience in teaching, she loves reading books. A procrastinator by nature, she loves travelling, listening to music, planting and gardening.

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