Citizen Green: Goodbye to Ralph Johnson and Earline Parmon


Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

I’ve been feeling nostalgia lately for the spring of 2008, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton waged an epic battle for North Carolina’s delegate votes in the presidential primary.

That’s when I first met Ralph Johnson. Sharon Hightower (now a member of Greensboro City Council) had recruited me to moderate a pair of candidate forums for a group called the Guilford County Unity Effort.

I remember Ralph Johnson pulling into the parking lot in a small pickup truck on that gorgeous spring evening in 2008, probably grabbing a sheaf of papers before ambling into the church gymnasium at New Light Baptist Church. He ran a home remodeling business, and it seemed as though he had just come from a job site. We had candidates for lieutenant governor and state treasurer coming to the candidate forum, and Johnson’s sense of righteous indignation impressed me. After introducing himself, I recall him saying something like, “We’ve got to hold these politicians accountable, Jordan.”

Politics can often seem like an arena of fakery, gamesmanship and self-serving puffery. Johnson and Hightower did real work in the community, including mobilizing citizens to keep the White Street Landfill closed, and they had the clout to call elected officials to account. For a young journalist with a healthy suspicion of authority, it seemed natural to make common cause with these two; they were links to the community I wished to serve. Of course, when they ran for office — Hightower was elected to city council in 2013, and Johnson to the state House in 2014 — my relationship with them by necessity took on a new distance.

It absolutely shook me when I learned about Johnson’s death after midnight while wrapping up work on an election in which he had just gone down in defeat. Johnson’s passing comes as a cruel blow to me because his presence feels tangible and of the moment. Far from being a person out of a different era, it seems as though Johnson should be gearing up for the next fight.

So too with Earline Parmon, the former state lawmaker who also died on the March 15 primary. Although Parmon had retired from the state Senate in early 2015 to serve as US Rep. Alma Adams’ outreach director, her tenacious work in Raleigh remained very much of the political moment, from fighting for compensation for eugenics victims to decrying Republican cuts to unemployment and asking tough questions about Health and Human Services Director Aldona Wos’ failure to deliver food-stamp benefits to eligible citizens.

Making the rounds from polling places to campaign parties on primary day, it was impossible not to run into people who had been profoundly affected by Parmon. John Holleman, who was campaigning for his brother Norman’s reelection bid as register of deeds in Forsyth County, said he considered Parmon as being like a sister. They had served together on the Forsyth County Commission in the early 1990s, and Holleman recalled with delight how the two had attended a reception on a yacht in Seattle together. A man with a substantial appetite, Holleman had been descending a flight of steps with a heaping plate in his hands when a wake heaved him upwards. Holleman told me that Parmon kidded him: “John, I’m gonna call the Winston-Salem Journal and tell them you’re drunk on a yacht.”

More seriously, state Rep. Ed Hanes told me: “She was a leader of people, period. Who’s next? Is it [Sen. Paul] Lowe? Is it me? Maybe someone we don’t even know who it is. That’s our responsibility — to be that person that steps up.”

The way I got to know Earline Parmon couldn’t be more different than how I became friends with Ralph Johnson.

I challenged an electioneering scheme involving a campaign flier handed out during the 2012 primary that misleadingly referenced a slate as “the Democratic candidates,” implying that their opponents were not Democrats. Although Parmon disavowed any involvement with the shady political action committee that produced the fliers, the fact that her campaign workers were handing out the fliers indicated otherwise. During a tense phone conversation I had to tell her I didn’t think her account was credible, and she heatedly asked me if I was calling her a “liar.”

The true testament to Parmon’s character is that her warmth and common touch made me forget that we had ever had any disagreements. That’s an admirable political skill, and many elected officials today would do well to learn what she knew so well — how to make adversaries into friends.

I will always remember running into Parmon at a get-out-the-vote event at a park in East Winston in the spring of 2014. It was my first major outing with my then 7-month-old daughter. Parmon took her out of my arms and made goo-goo noises at her.

“Count on Earline to make a baby smile,” said state Rep. Evelyn Terry, who was standing nearby.

That’s only a small reflection of Earline Parmon’s substantial abilities. Winston-Salem will miss her, and I will, too.