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The Rev. Johnny Scott, former president of the NAACP in East St. Louis, dies at 91

The Rev. Johnny Scott stands in front of the Spivey Building in downtown East St. Louis in 2018.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
The Rev. Johnny Scott stands in front of the Spivey Building in downtown East St. Louis in 2018.

Editor's note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat.

Longtime civil rights activist, voting rights activist and president of the NAACP branch in East St. Louis, the Rev. Johnny Scott, has died.

Scott died on Thanksgiving Day at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in O’Fallon after suffering a heart attack and contracting COVID, according to St. Clair County Coroner Calvin Dye Sr. and family members. He was 91.

Crystal (Scott) Watson, one of Scott’s two daughters, said her father was “the best dad in the whole wide world.”

“He taught me the value of having a relationship with the Lord at a very young age,” she said.

“He showed me what it is like to be a Christian by not being perfect but once you fall to get back up. He didn’t just take us to church. He prayed over his family. He showed me that even as a Christian there will be times in your life where you will make mistakes. But, if you go back to God, and confess your sins, he is just and faithful to forgive us. I got the example of what the word says by seeing him walk it out. When he fell, he knew how to get back to that right relationship realizing it was not his goodness or his righteousness, but it was the righteousness of the Lord.”

Watson described her dad as “the best spiritual father a person could have.”

“He did all he could do for his family. Not a perfect father … not a perfect man. But he was the epitome of a father to me. He made his share of mistakes, but he was one you could talk to,” she said.

As she and her sister, Shelia (Scott) Clark grew older, Scott knew how to transition from being a father to being a mentor, Watson said.

Watson said Scott was there for them in their adult lives, but he allowed them to make some decisions and mistakes to help them grow.

“He knew he couldn’t continue to raise grown children, but he was a father. He was there if we fell,” she said.

Taken to hospital

Scott was at home when fell out of bed a couple of weeks ago. He hurt his shoulder and went to the hospital.

Doctors told him it was not broken so they sent him back home.

But three days later, Watson got a call from her nephew that Scott could not walk.

She left her home in Huntsville, Alabama, and headed to the metro-east.

“When I got to his house he could not walk,” she said. “I got him to the hospital. We found out he had had a major heart attack.”

She said her father subsequently contracted COVID.

The Rev. Johnny Scott is surrounded by daughter Crystal Watson, wife Greta Scott, grandson Jamail Watson, daughter Shelia Clark, grandson Octavious Clark and his wife Tiffany Clark.
The Rev. Johnny Scott is surrounded by daughter Crystal Watson, wife Greta Scott, grandson Jamail Watson, daughter Shelia Clark, grandson Octavious Clark and his wife Tiffany Clark.

Scott marriage

Scott was married to Greta (Garner) Scott for 71 years.

Watson said they were always there for each other and if they quarreled among themselves neither let anyone else bother the other.

His wife stood by his side for many years in the tax and accounting business that he ran for many years at 2149 State St. in East St. Louis. He was also president of the NAACP’s East St. Louis branch, which he housed inside of his tax office. He kept the doors open for eight hours a day, six days a week.

And whatever he needed her to do, his wife was there to oblige and vice versa.

Greta Scott has been battling cancer for many years and those who knew the couple knew he was there at her side taking care of her to honor their marriage vows of “’til death do us part.”

As he was preparing to retire he told a BND reporter, “Whatever I needed her to do, she has been here to do. I am very grateful to her for what she has done.”

“They showed that a marriage can survive in the midst of adversity. They weathered the storms, hurricanes and blizzards,” Watson said.

Help for white and Black residents

Talking about Scott’s passion to help mankind, Watson said her father had a passion for helping the underdog.

Watson said her father worked to bring Black and white persons together and he helped Black people as well as white persons in Belleville and other places.

“He fought for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. Whoever needed help, my dad made himself available to them,” Watson said.

And because he wanted equality for all people, regardless of race, or gender he was often called an Uncle Tom by some Black people.

Watson said her father took the heat from Black people who spoke harshly of him for fighting for white persons.

“It didn’t matter race or gender. Before I became a minister and when churches in the area didn’t agree with women ministers, he took a stand … If God could use a donkey, he could use a woman”, Watson quoted Scott saying.

“He fought for what was right,” she said.

President Bill Clinton poses with the Rev. Johnny Scott. They are with Scott’s daughter, Sheila Clark, and his grandson, Carlo Clark.
President Bill Clinton poses with the Rev. Johnny Scott. They are with Scott’s daughter, Sheila Clark, and his grandson, Carlo Clark.

Scott's career

Community leaders described Scott as a hard working and dedicated former president of the NAACP chapter in East St. Louis.

Scott, who was born in Indianola, Mississippi, wore many hats in his career. He served in the U.S. Army and was a manager with the U.S. Postal Service.

He was appointed by U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and U.S. Sen. Paul Simon to serve on a federal judicial commission. He is a former member of the East St. Louis Police and Fire board. He was a chaplain for the St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department.

He also earned many other awards for his service to the community.

Scott pastored at Antioch Baptist Church in Venice, and Watson plans to continue Scott’s legacy taking the torch her dad lighted and stepping up more to fight for the downtrodden and less fortunate.

In 2013, after 32 years as head of the NAACP East St. Louis branch, Scott retired as president.

He said it was time for a new younger face to take over and bring fresher ideas.

He handed the presidency of the NAACP over to Stanley Franklin saying, at that time, “This position is not mine forever, to have until I cross over Jordan.”

“The NAACP has to stay alive. To do that you have to have new blood with new ideas,” Scott said.

Franklin offered condolences to Scott’s family and praised Scott for his leadership.

“Johnny was the one who prepared and got me ready to become president after him,” said Franklin, who served as president of the group for about 10 years.

“He assisted me in every way possible,” Franklin said. “He was a beacon in our community. He was a wealth of knowledge. He will be missed by not only his family but the community at large. He has touched a lot of lives.”

Scott played a role in the U.S. Justice Department’s settlement with the city of Belleville over racial bias in hiring. He participated in sensitivity training for local police and mediated disputes that ranged from racial epithets being used in public to being the spokesman for local groups on issues like burnings and state take over of East St. Louis schools.

He was also a member of the Metro East Police Commission and Calvin Dye Sr., who is now the county coroner, was president of the board.

Dye recalls his work with Scott. ”We worked together on the issue that came before the board. It was great working with him,” he said with a chuckle.

Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly, who previously served as state’s attorney in St. Clair County, said, “Rev. Scott was a supporter of strong, ethical law enforcement and believed the community and law enforcement had to work together to stop the cycle of violence.”

Longtime businessman Cedric Taylor served under Scott as a deacon at Antioch for five years.

He said society has lost a man who was always ready and willing to serve anyone who needed a hand.

“He was a tireless worker. He took his job as a leader in the community very seriously,” Taylor said.

“I pray he rests in peace. He deserves it. I pray for mercy and grace for his family as they go through the grieving process,” Taylor said.

Funeral services

The visitation for the Rev. Johnny Scott will be 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday at Serenity Memorialat 3416 W. Main St. in Belleville.

A funeral will be at 1 p.m. Friday at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery chapel in south St. Louis County.

Carolyn P. Smith is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Carolyn P. Smith is a breaking news reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.