Johnnie Tillmon was born in Scott, Arkansas, in 1926. A migrant sharecropper’s daughter, she moved to California in 1959 to join her brothers and worked as a union shop steward in a Compton laundry. Tillmon organized workers and became involved in a community association called the Nickerson Garden Planning Organization which was established to improve living conditions in the housing project.
Tillmon became ill in 1963 and was advised to seek welfare. She was hesitant at first but decided to apply for assistance to take care of her children. She immediately learned how welfare recipients were harassed by caseworkers who went to their apartments looking for evidence of extra support and who designated how they should spend money. In order to fight against this dehumanizing treatment, Tillmon organized people in the housing project and founded one of the first grassroots welfare mothers’ organizations called ANC (Aid to Needy Children) Mothers Anonymous, in 1963. When a former CORE activist, George Wiley, brought together local welfare recipients’ groups and transformed them into a national movement, ANC Mothers joined the movement and became a part of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). Tillmon quickly emerged as a leader and became a chairperson of the NWRO. Together with other welfare mothers, she struggled for adequate income, dignity, justice, and democratic participation.
While the NWRO was officially run by welfare recipients, the male middle-class staff managed the finances and administered the national office, wielding great influence over the organization. Tillmon and other welfare mothers became increasingly critical of Wiley and his supporters who dominated leadership positions, and sought to place control of the organization in the hands of the welfare recipients. When the number of recipients rapidly increased and the NWRO was under fierce attack, the internal conflict between the staff members and welfare recipients came to the forefront. While Wiley and his advisers tried to mobilize the working poor, especially the white blue-collar workers, into the welfare rights movement, welfare mothers led by Tillmon sought to align with a women’s movement and gain support from feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW).
In 1972, Tillmon published an article in Ms magazine entitled “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue,” articulating how the welfare system controlled the lives of women on welfare and constantly placed them under the scrutiny of government authorities. She tried to broaden the horizons of the feminist movement by redefining poverty as a “women’s issue.” When Wiley resigned in late 1972, Tillmon was chosen as the new Executive Director of the NWRO. The funding for the organization, however, had become depleted by the time she became the director. After the NWRO folded in 1975, Tillmon returned to Los Angeles, continuing her struggle for welfare rights at the local and state levels. In 1995, Tillmon passed away at the age of 69.