My American Story: Secretary Jeh Johnson

My American Story
by Secretary Jeh Johnson

My great grandfather, Charles H. Johnson, was born a slave in southwest Virginia. After emancipation, he put himself through Virginia Union University, learned multiple languages, and became a Baptist minister. Rev. Johnson founded the Lee Street Baptist Church in Bristol, Virginia, which is still there.

Jeh Johnson’s Great-Grandfather

Descendents of Rev. Johnson outside the Church

“My grandfather, Charles S. Johnson, was one of the leading black sociologists of his time. He was also summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949 and denied he was a member of the Communist Party. He told Congress then “wanting the elimination of inequalities and racial discrimination is not wanting to subvert the government.” Though Dr. Johnson became accustomed to those who questioned his loyalty, and lived and died a second-class citizen in the Jim Crow South, he had an abiding optimism about this nation. One month before he died in 1956, Dr. Johnson wrote “A Southern Negro’s View of the South” for the New York Times Magazine. In it he said:

“Bitterness grows out of hopelessness, and there is no sense of hopelessness in this situation, however uncomfortable or menacing and humiliating it may be at times. Faith in the ultimate strength and code of the nation as a whole has always been stronger than the impulse to despair.”

Images of Johnson's Grandfather, Dr. Charles S. Johnson

My great-great grandfather on my mother’s side, Richard M. Goodwin, was a native of Selma, Alabama. On a 2007 sightseeing visit to the century-old Brown Chapel in Selma, the location where the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march originated, by chance I discovered the name “R.M. Goodwin” on the church’s cornerstone, identifying my ancestor as the founding secretary of that National Historic Landmark.  

Goodwin’s family migrated north to Washington, DC, and my mother is a native Washingtonian. Her family were all postal workers in Washington, and found job security and stability in federal civil service. They were proud and patriotic residents of the Nation’s Capital, and revered Franklin Roosevelt. My mother recalls, as a little girl, witnessing FDR drive past her home on Maryland Avenue one day, top down with Fala along for the ride, and a Secret Service chase car not far behind.

Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama.

I have inherited much from both strands of my ancestry. I am a patriot. I was drawn to public service in Washington. I see our federal government as a source for good.  I have faith in the character of this nation and the decency of its people. 

Dedication to the common good has passed to the next generation of Johnsons. My daughter is an associate producer for MSNBC. My son wears the uniform of this nation.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt with Fala.

“I have inherited much from both strands of my ancestry. I am a patriot. I was drawn to public service in Washington. I see our federal government as a source for good. I have faith in the character of this nation and the decency of its people.”

Finally, as Mark Twain said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I’m told that my when my grandfather testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, it was in the same hearing room on Capitol Hill where I testified decades later before the House Homeland Security Committee. My mother has lived long enough to see her own son drive a convertible with a Secret Service chase car close behind.

Alabama; Secretary Johnson visiting Brown Chapel in 2015.



Jeh Charles Johnson, former Secretary of Homeland Security, is a partner in the Paul, Weiss Litigation Department and a member of the Firm’s Management and Partnership Committees. Secretary Johnson advises clients, including management teams and boards of directors, on crisis management, government and internal investigations, high-stakes litigation and regulatory matters, and legal aspects of cybersecurity and other security matters. He is also an experienced trial lawyer, and a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers. Secretary Johnson is on the board of directors of Lockheed Martin. Since leaving government in January 2017, Secretary Johnson has been called upon to testify before Congress on cybersecurity matters three times, and is a regular commentator on national and homeland security on ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC, MSNBC, CNBC, CNN and numerous other outlets. He was the 2018 recipient of the Ronald Reagan Peace Through Strength Award, presented at the Reagan Presidential Library and currently serves as a member of The Common Good Honorary Advisory Board. You can read more about Johnson here.