IN CONVERSATION WITH…
DERRICK JOHNSON, NAACP President and CEO
“Any success that I have had is only tempered by the failures that I had… My vision is how can I maximize the skills that I have been blessed with to help those who can’t speak for themselves.”
Part 1 of 2
Son of 1
Husband of 1
Father of 5
Raised by a Village
I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan to a single parent; an only child. I had the most fantastic upbringing that one could think of. I was the poor little rich kid in the neighborhood. I benefitted from having a village to raise me so out of that village I would always have the new something, be it shoes or clothes. I understood early on that in many ways my upbringing was different than some of my friends’, who may not have had the same level of village, despite us living in the exact same neighborhood.
I didn’t have a father growing up, but I had four older men who held the space for me. That was the best thing that could have ever happened to me because it allowed me to get the benefit of multiple experiences, which allowed me to pull knowledge from them and see them for who they were. I believe that one’s upbringing is not an indication of anything other than the character of which one builds.
My village allowed me to appreciate the Black Experience more than most. My mother migrated from West Tennessee just north of Memphis like many people from the south did in pursuit of a job. I had a Great Aunt and Uncle who had moved there first and like most African-Americans from the South at that time had followed the railroad. You have the families who went first whether it was the WWII Great Migration or WWI Great Migration. My family was part of the WWII migration. When my Great Uncle came out of the military he decided he was not going to settle for the societal placements in the South so he moved to Detroit. My mother eventually moved up there with them so my great aunt was like my grandmother. With that I had the advantage of learning from all of her wisdom and watching my mother try to navigate the “big city.” When my great aunt died, my mother inherited all of her responsibilities, including wisdom and the village she created, and to some degree I did as well.
MY VILLAGE: THE WONDER YEARS
When I was about 9 years of age or so, we had JIMMY who lived near to us just across the vacant lot of land we owned. He was a garbage man for the City of Detroit—a good job at the time because of labor unions. He was also an alcoholic who struggled with his sexuality and even to this day is one of the smartest people I have ever known when it came to the Bible. He was like a grandfather to me. Jimmy was naturally generous, but once he got paid he would drink and when he would drink he would just give all his money away. My responsibility every payday was to get to him before anyone else could and put his money away to ensure that when he sobered up he would have enough to pay his bills each month. Otherwise, my mother would have to carry him over to the next payday. When he would see me walking up he would curse, but we learned navigate that (Laughter). In Jimmy I learned the harsh realities of alcoholism and vowed to myself that I would never lose control. In his sober moments, he would talk about what I should not do based on learning from the experience of others.
Experience comes not only from learning-watching people do good things, but also watching people do things that are less than who they are. That opened me up to see this individual who was like my grandfather; to see him for who he was and not just the negative identifiers that people would put on him.
CRACK IN THE INNER-CITY
I was having the village-experience in Detroit in the midst of the Crack epidemic. We talk about our neighborhood pre-crack and post-crack: the organized chaos prior to crack coming in and the complete chaos after it came in.
I recall watching American Gangster, the Frank Lucas story, and being so angry at that movie. People are celebrating this gangster/drug-dealer yet all I saw was the destruction of my neighborhood with the heroin epidemic only to be followed by the crack epidemic. I think I was in the 10th grade when I realized this thing called “crack.” It was devasting to all of us—shattering of childhood innocence—so a group of my friends (there were four of us) made a pact that if any of us used drugs they were out, no excuses. We had enough knowledge to understand the impact it could have on a person for us to know that it was something we should not do. With the exception of one person, none of us broke the pact.
SPREADING MY WINGS : NAACP
There is always a mechanism to get to where you want to go if you lean into the people who are willing to invest in you and never look down on them. Appreciate and see them for who they are.
I graduated high school with a 1.8 GPA. I should not have gone to college, but I had Mr. Midget, my counselor, who during my senior year said, “what are you doing next year?” He gave me an application to fill out and then I was going to college: Mary Holmes, a two-year school. While there, I was trying to sneak into the girl’s dormitory to study—they had better lighting—and got caught. The person over the dorm happened to be the daughter of AARON HENRY, Head of NAACP’s Mississippi branch and state President when MEDGER EVERS was assassinated. To save myself from being reported and kicked off campus, I pleaded to her and she told me to do something useful; to start an organization. She suggested I start a local chapter of the NAACP and so that is what I did with a couple of friends even though it still had not clicked for me. Neither the gravity of the organization nor my seat within its ranks were understood by me as yet.
A few weeks later, she tells me that there is a state meeting in Louisville not too far from our school and asked if I wanted to go because her father was coming by. I agreed, still not fully understanding who her father was or the importance of the invitation. I got to the meeting and what was fascinating was that as I was sitting there, hearing the names of the people in attendance it clicked! I realize that these people were the very people that I had been reading about and I was like, “wow, they are still alive.” This meeting, my very first of an NAACP state meeting, was calling for a boycott surrounding BROWN VS. BOARD OF EDUCATION. I was sitting there in awe, understanding that here we were in 1991 and we were still fighting a 1954 decision. I am hooked! I become the State Youth President.
At Mary Holmes, all of the boys had to work in the library. There was absolutely nothing to do on campus because it was so small so to keep from being bored I started to read and my world opened up:
The Fire Next Time (James Baldwin) – the first book I read cover to cover
The Autobiography of Assata Shakur (Assata Shakur) – the next book the librarian put in from to me
TOUGALOO : ACTIVISTS + ADVOCATES
“Where History Meets The Future,” that’s our motto.
I came to enroll at Tougaloo College, a small private HBCU steeped in the Civil Rights Movement and social justice, at the insistence of ROSE PARKMAN DAVIS, the librarian at Mary Louise College. From the moment I arrived on campus it felt like home. To this day it remains a school with an average student population of about 900 students. It felt like an oasis. Everybody knew each other. Beautiful women. And every one is saying they are pre-law or pre-med. I had never experienced that reality. The on-campus environment was electric. Every Wednesday we would have phenomenal speakers come on campus for CHAPEL appearing in the same forums as some of the greatest activists and speakers of our time. STOKELY CARMICHAEL came down every year because Tougaloo was the only place activists could have a safe-haven. The campus embraced the Civil Rights Movement unlike most of the HBCUs. If you came to Mississippi, which was ground zero for the movement, then you had to come to Tougaloo because that is where they strategized and planned formally every Wednesday night.
My two years at Tougaloo were the most rewarding intellectual experience that I have ever had up until now because we would debate vigorously the question of BLACK vs. BLACKNESS. On campus we had the following:
All African Revolutionary Party – Stokely Carmichael’s group. They were Pan Africanists and they were always debating the need to study.
Black Nationalists/Republic of New Afrika – CHOWKE LUMUMBA and IMARI OBADELE were organizing a new group called The Malcolm X Grass Roots Network
The Nation of Islam
Black Hebrew Israelites
And here I walk in as the NAACP and they are like, “what? Get outta here,” but from that were vigorous debates around the principles of Blackness and liberation, how we must struggle for our freedom, and ways in which we would all lean-in and share perspective. People don’t understand that there is a difference between Black Nationalism and Pan Africanism. There is a difference between being able to see this system for what it is and then participate in electoral politics, or the vehicle of religion, or the divisiveness of religion. At the end of the day, when you peel all the layers back, it is about loving our community. That is the core. Those experiences of critical thinking and debate allowed me to make up for all the time I played around in school or didn’t understand that I was being robbed of the opportunity to do so; the opportunity to think analytically and develop in that way.
DR. SAFIYA OMARI, who my youngest daughter is named after, taught the class Topics In Psychology that was always around some form of black liberationism and also around the strength of Black women. The debates within her class were so great that people would buy the books and audit the class just to be part of the discussion. There would have been no advances without the women of the Civil Rights Movement. I saw this first hand.
Tougaloo stretched me. When you have a religion and philosophy professor in the same person and one of the first questions you are asked, “is God real,” what else could be the result? I was in the Bible Belt with a bunch of students, some of whom are first generation in college, and all of whom go to somebody’s AME, CME or Baptist Church and the professor has just said, “prove it. I didn’t say He wasn’t, or She wasn’t, or They aren’t. I am saying, Prove it.”
As you can imagine, people were getting heated, but in that their minds started to wonder and they started the dissection to answer the question. Meaning one of the first asks becomes, “should we accept everything we have been told at face value or should we delve into a journey of understanding and strengthening our belief systems because in that is the value of critical thinking. It is not to change someone’s mind, but it is to unpack what is accepted without question.”
At the end of the day, independent of what side you are when you take away all of the façades and the fake arguments, the only questions are these: Do you love your community enough to work for your community? Do you love your people and can you see the richness of your people even in some shortcomings because those are shortcomings we are all susceptible to and rise above by the grace of God.
LAW SCHOOL + CRITICAL THINKING
I appreciated debating as an under grad, but I didn’t truly appreciate critical thinking until I got to law school a Southern Texas College. This was my first true experience in a predominantly all-white setting. I was in a criminal justice class and remember the teacher being a former Assistant District Attorney. The case we were looking at was HUEY P. NEWTON’s in order to determine his Mens Rea state of mind at the time that he got pulled over and the shooting that was involved. The question she asked was, “what state of mind do you think he was in to think that he was at risk and precipitated the situation?” In her mind it was premeditated that he shot the officers, and there was no analysis of the things that led up to the event so I started raising my hand and asking questions. “Is this the same Huey P. Newton who founded the Black Panther Party? Isn’t it true that the FBI had set up CONTELEPRO,” I asked.
I could see her getting angry at my challenge, but I was thinking, “we are in law school right? My job is not to accept things at face value so why is she, as the teacher, mad?” It was then in that moment that I realized that so many of us have a herd mentality. We accept stuff without questioning anything and because we don’t question anything we operate in ways that are not in our best interest. This goes back to *CARTER GODWIN WILSON’s concept that if you don’t train a person to think he will break a hole in the wall to go through the back door even if you tell them they don’t have to go through it anymore.
*Carter G. Wilson, Founder of the Association and Study of Negro Life and History (1915) and the Journal of Negro History (1916).
As a community we have to question:
Why do we operate so heavily in a system and invest with our tax dollars when it is clear that is not for us?
Why do we go and build other people’s organizations and neglect our organizations?
Why do we go build other people’s corporations and don’t establish, manage, and pass down our corporations?
Why do we invest so heavily into a system that seeks to consistently exploit us for cheap labor?
How do we break out that?
I am with the NAACP because if we don’t invest in our own organization, who will? If we don’t love our own people, who else will? These are lessons learned and questions I can answer now because I have had the experience to find my voice and position in the struggle.
The MANTRA (Voice in My Head)
Any success that I have had is only tempered by the failures that I had. When I was younger, Jimmy would see me doing something good and getting too high on myself and he would always say, “come down Zachariah.” This was because to him when you get so high up, you can always fall so at the end of the day whether you do good or bad you are still the same person so stay in the middle. Don’t get full of yourself. Don’t down yourself. Stay consistent. If you stay consistent you are going to have the ebbs and flows of life, but those are all lessons. So, any success that I have is only tempered by the reality that I have had failures as well. The successes are learning moments. The failures are learning moments. The reality for me is to stay focused on the vision. My vision is how can I maximize the skills that I have been blessed with to help those who can’t speak for themselves.
***Read pt. 2 of President Johnson’s IN CONVERSATION WITH… to learn the specific incident that synthesized his vision, and how he has adapted it to lead the NAACP***