William J. Johnson became the first African-American general in the history of the Arkansas National Guard. Johnson served in the Arkansas National Guard for thirty-six years before his 2012 retirement. Brigadier General Leodis Jennings said of Johnson’s 2008 promotion to deputy adjutant general that it was “significant on three levels—he is the first African American General in Arkansas, the first African American Deputy Adjutant General in Arkansas and the highest ranking African American in the Arkansas National Guard. He routinely sets the standard of excellence.” In 2010, Johnson was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, and three years later became a member of the Arkansas National Guard Officer Candidate School (OCS) Hall of Fame.
William J. Johnson was born in Pulaski County on December 11, 1950. He graduated from Scipio A. Jones High School, an African-American school in North Little Rock (Pulaski County), before moving on to Philander Smith College in Little Rock (Pulaski County) where he received his bachelor’s degree in organizational management. (In 2001, he received a master’s degree from the United States Army War College in Strategic Studies.)
In 1976, Johnson joined the Arkansas Army National Guard as an enlisted soldier. This was less than twenty years after the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, in which the Arkansas National Guard played a prominent role. During the Central High School crisis in 1957, when Johnson was a child, African Americans were barred from serving in the Arkansas National Guard. When he walked into the armory to join the National Guard, Johnson sat down to fill out his paperwork with a warrant officer. In the back room, an administrative supply technician (AST) was making derogatory remarks about African Americans. Johnson knew he had to make a decision—finish filling out the forms or walk out. General Johnson recounted in 2016 that the warrant officer said, “You have a right to be in this Guard just as much as we do. Don’t let that bother you. Just a minute.” The warrant officer walked to the back room to talk to the AST, who then apologized. Johnson finished the forms.
As an enlisted soldier, Johnson spent his first five years in the Arkansas National Guard as part of the 212th Signal Battalion. In 1981, he was commissioned from the OCS. Before attaining the rank of brigadier general, Johnson served in several staff and command positions. These include the 212th Signal Battalion’s commander; the executive officer of the First Battalion, 153rd Infantry; chief operations officer of the Marksmanship Training Unit; and chief of the Joint Staff for the Arkansas National Guard.
On January 1, 2008, General Johnson achieved the distinction of being the first African American in the Arkansas National Guard to be appointed the deputy adjutant general. Among his duties was to help lead more than 10,000 members of the Arkansas Army and Air National Guard. In addition, Johnson was in charge of the preparedness for domestic operations and homeland security in Arkansas.
Johnson has received many awards and decorations, including the Legion of Merit Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with Three Oak Leaf Clusters, Army Achievement Medal, Army Physical Fitness Badge, Arkansas Distinguished Service Medal, and Arkansas Army National Guard General Staff Badge. General Johnson retired from the Arkansas National Guard on December 31, 2012. Of his military service, Johnson said, “Even my worst day that I had [in the Arkansas National Guard] was still a good day.” During his more than three decades of service, Johnson saw the Arkansas National Guard grow into a more professional and inclusive organization, and he played a significant role through mentoring and leadership.
For additional information:
Lawson, Bill. “State’s First Black General Retires from Guard.” The Times (North Little Rock), January 10, 2013.
Moore, Lt. Col. Keith. “State’s Deputy Adjutant General Retires after 36 Years of Service to Guard.” 189th Airlift Wing Warrior 15 (January 2013).
Raymond D. Screws
Arkansas National Guard Museum