Johnson was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on January 25, 1935 to Mary and Clarence Washington. While raising a family Johnson worked a number of jobs including recruiting members to an African American neighborhood association, sorting mail for the U.S. Postal Service, and working as an administrative support for Parents and Friends of children with difficulties
Johnson lived in Altgeld Gardens Homes a South Side, Chicago housing project managed by the Chicago Housing Authority.Originally built to house American war veterans, the area was by surrounded landfills, industrial buildings and sewage-treatment plants. Following the death of her husband in 1969 from lung cancer and the prevalence of skin and respiratory issues among her seven children, Johnson began investigating the impacts of the neighborhood’s environmental conditions on its residents. She documented the occurrence of chronic health problems present in the community in order to better understand the impacts of the area’s air and water pollution. What Johnson learned led her to dub the neighborhood “The Toxic Donut”. In addition to being exposed to hazardous fumes from surrounding factories and asbestos used during construction of the buildings, the community was supplied with contaminated drinking water and was found to have the highest cancer rate in the city.
Following the death of her husband, Johnson’s growing awareness about the impacts of environmental hazards on people’s health prompted her to begin agitating for accountability from the Chicago Housing Authority regarding their failure to properly maintain buildings and ignoring environmental hazards. She ran for and was elected to the Altgeld Gardens Local Advisory Council in 1970, remaining in the role until 1979 before founding the People for Community Recovery. For her efforts Johnson has been recognized as the mother of the environmental justice movement.