Former Shelby County Criminal Court Clerk, Shelby County Commissioner and Memphis City Councilwoman Minerva Johnican passed away March 8 at Methodist University Hospital at the age of 74.
Johnican ran for mayor in 1987 and was a close second behind former Mayor Richard Hackett.
She was a school teacher for 18 years and later went on to become the Shelby County Criminal Court Clerk for many years.
She carried a regal first name derived from the Roman's mythical "Goddess of Wisdom." She once attributed her legendary feistiness to being "a black woman in a white man's world." But, in nearly 30 years on the Memphis political scene, the late Ms. Johnican deftly combined common sense wisdom and her fierce belief in equality to tear down the barriers of gender and race in city and county government.
"Not only was Minerva Johnican a trailblazer, she knew how to work with people. She knew how to make sure her constituents' agenda moved forward," recalls former Shelby County Commissioner Deidre Malone.
As a pioneer African American woman, Johnican set precedents as both the first female member of an earlier version of the Shelby County Commission in 1975 and later as an aggressive constituent driven Memphis City Council member. Yet, it was her outspoken frankness and independent stances on issues, which made her a polarizing figure often in her own Democratic Party.
She waged an unsuccessful and bitter congressional campaign against Harold Ford Sr. in 1980. Ousted from her Commission seat by a Ford backed candidate, she barely avoided a split with the Shelby County Democratic Party when she endorsed two Republican candidates including Lamar Alexander for governor. Her crossover support was considered almost treasonous at the time, but it would be a precursor to mirroring the future effectiveness of political coalitions.
Johnican was credited with revitalizing the previously antiquated system of the Shelby County Court Clerk's Office and getting the Commission to add thousands of dollars more to the budget. But, after being upset for re-election in 1994, Johnican would, except for the endorsement of Steve Cohen in 2006, publicly disappear from the political spotlight. She resurfaced in an ill-fated campaign to regain her old clerk's post in 2010. But, whether in defeat or victory, Johnican served as role model for those who believe politics can still generate genuine passion and change.
"I remember her coming to my headquarters and saying to me, and it meant the world to me, she said, ‘Deidre, you may not have won this one. But, what you've done is that you've advanced the cause for other women who are thinking about running for political office,'" Malone said.
You could expect that type of insight from a woman named "Minerva."
Funeral arrangements for Johnican's Homegoing Celebration were set on Monday, family member said. Visitation will be held Friday, March 15 from 4-8 p.m. at Parkway Gardens United Presbyterian Church, 1005 East Shelby Dr., in Memphis.
The Homegoing Services will be Saturday, March 16, at 12 noon, also at Parkway Gardens United Presbyterian Church.