Johnson came from a militant union background and was a lifelong activist for social justice. Bob’s father, Clyde Johnson , was sent by the Communist Party USA in the 1930s to help organize the Alabama Sharecropper’s Union under extremely dangerous conditions (as described in Robin Kelley’s book, Hammer and Hoe). From this seminal experience, Clyde went on to organize workers in Goose Creek, Texas, Pittsburgh, Washington, Denver and later the Bay Area, and Bob absorbed the perspective and rich experience of these years from Clyde and from Bob’s mother, Anne Johnson. For the rest of his life Bob identified strongly with the struggles of African-Americans for social justice and liberation as well as with the battles of the multi-national working class.
While in college, Johnson was a student activist involved in support for striking hotel and restaurant workers in San Francisco. Bob decided he wanted to be a math teacher, and he joined the faculty at Tougaloo College in Mississippi in 1965, where he took part in voter registration drives. Later he and his wife, Elsa, returned to California, and Bob became a prominent organizer for the union representing faculty in the California State University system. He was a founding member and past president of the Sonoma State local of the United Professors of California, and later was an officer in the California Faculty Association. Bob became a Professor of Math at Sonoma State and was twice Chairman of the Math Department.
Bob was a very active member of the Bay Area branch of Freedom Road Socialist Organization: he participated in mass organizing, co-authored a book on women’s liberation, and undertook extensive organizational tasks such as being chair of the district for two years. In addition he was active in support for the FMLN in El Salvador through CISPES. He took part in the first U.S. union delegation to El Salvador in 1986, and contributed an article to Forward Motion on the trip (vol. V, no. 1, 1986). In recent years he spent many hours working on the committee to free jeronimo ji Jaga (pratt), a former leader of the Black Panthers who was unjustly held in prison for twenty years, framed under the Cointelpro program for the murder of a policeman.