July 2002

Johnnie Ruth Jenkins

Community Activist

Whether helping a family in need of food or marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the 1960’s, Johnnie Ruth Jenkins has been fighting for the needs of others for more than 30 years. Jenkins says her grandmother instilled in her the call to community service. Jenkins went to work with the Salkehatchie Community Action Agency. She worked with former Barnwell Councilman George Green, the Rev. Aaron Bush, and former state representative Joe Wilder to get the program started. The Salkehatchie Community Action Agency offered family planning, youth programs, summer jobs for teenagers, and emergency food and medical services. As a field agent for the agency, Jenkins went to homes of low-income families to assess the amount of aid needed. The agency closed in 1973, but would later re-emerge in Aiken and establish more offices in surrounding areas including Barnwell. Jenkins also helped to implement Head Start, a preschool program for low-income families in the Barnwell area. Jenkins spent the next few years doing more volunteer work. She assisted in starting a Head Start program at Voorhees College in Denmark to serve Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell and Hampton counties. As the sole coordinator of a program that now has nine staff members today, she worked tirelessly to share with others and give something back to the community. After Community Action reorganized in Aiken, Jenkins became the director of the Barnwell office. ‘There is hardly a black home in Barnwell that has not been touched in some way by Community Action, and many white homes also,’ she says. Jenkins spent the rest of her career at Community Action in Barnwell. In May of 1997, she was forced to leave because of health problems, and she retired that November. But even when she was ill, she did not stop helping others. Shortly after having major surgery, Jenkins ran a Christmas food drive for 132 families, making many of the calls from her bed. In the midst of Jenkins’ charity and social work, she refocused her energies on an earlier cause – civil rights. Jenkins had already developed a strong reputation in the community, and she was criticized by some when she entered the civil rights arena. She taught blacks about voters’ rights and segregation. Also, she taught classes on the Constitution and other material. ‘I never sought publicity for what I did,’ says Jenkins. Whether she helped a family or fought for the rights of African-Americans, Jenkins is glad that she has made a difference. ‘Things are better now, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to carry our share of the burden,’ she says.