In Conversation With…
DERRICK JOHNSON, NAACP President and CEO
“Am I being the best advocate for our community in a way in which my ego is not blocking the potential of my greatness.”
Part 2 of 2
PROTEST : PASSING THE BATON
“PRIVATE TOUGALOO COLLEGE RALLIES FOR PUBLIC HBCUs” is what the headline read in 1992 when we led our first protest rally—valuable lesson learned!
One day in the spring of 1991, Tougaloo President HABIB SHAKUR stopped three of my friends and I as we were coming from class and said, “we Tougalooans have a legacy of protest. Y’all are not protesting enough. If you don’t protest then I can’t raise money…”
Intrigued enough by the challenge to do some research, but not ready to activate, we stumbled across the AYERS v. BARBOUR case that had just been argued. It was not until nearly a year later however when I was doing an internship at the NAACP National Convention that everything clicked once again.
The Supreme Court had heard the argument around the case about inadequate equal state funding of HBCUs compared to white schools in Mississippi and issued a partial victory to the attorney ALVIN O’ CHAMBLISS JR. It stated that in fact the state of Mississippi had discriminated against historically black schools, but the remedy to fix it they felt lay with the district court who said they did not discriminate, which meant another court battle and litigation.
I knew who Chambliss was from years prior in 1989 when I was at Mary Holmes College. He was one of the leaders in the room during my first NAACP meeting in Louisville. In that meeting he referenced getting ready for a court battle around this very thing. I recall thinking two things at that time: it was fascinating and I had never actually met a Black lawyer. Now here we are in 1992, I get to the convention and find out the room I thought I had by myself was actually to be shared with Alvin Chambers! When you live in a village the elders take privilege over the youth. It was the best thing that could have happened because now I was in this room with the guy who just finished an argument with the Supreme Court and I was able to listen in on all of his meetings, which is exactly what I did. I sat in the corner and I listened as lawyer after lawyer and judge after judge would come up to the room and they would talk about the strategy for the case. By that time, he had become ornery about the position of things. I recall after one of the back-and-forths we were in the room alone and he said,
“I think I have done all I can for this case. If we don’t take to the streets they are going to take our schools. These lawyers don’t hear what I am saying. They are ready to cut a deal and we can’t cut a deal because this is not about the three schools in Mississippi -Jackson State, Alcorn State, and Mississippi Valley- this is about historically black colleges that are publicly funded in 14 states. … Y’all have to take to the street.”
Now the dots started to connect for me.
1. President Habib saying months earlier that we needed to protest.
2. Sitting in a meeting 3 years before with these Civil Rights giants who were still alive fighting 20-30 years later.
3. Having a safe-haven called Tougaloo College with the authority to freely express myself.
4. Being able to absorb knowledge and rigorous debate with your peers, who are serious about their opinions, even as we were trying to figure out what our opinions were.
It all came together and I was like, “wow!”
I am having this experience at the same time that ROSS PEROT, who was running for US President, had just appeared at our NAACP Convention and said, "you people" or "your people" to describe the offenders and the victims of inner-city crime and drug use. Talk about a watershed moment! I get back on campus and start to organize our chapter’s first protest. We put out the calls to enlist the other universities and load on the buses as a collective unit. We get there. We’re fired up. We rally. And the headline reads, “Private Tougaloo College Rallies For Public HBCUs.” It was intentionally structured wording to elicit divisiveness. In that moment, I began to understand the difference between community-centric organizing and ego-centric organizing.
The model that the elder NAACP leaders had and trained the SNCC activists with was that it is not the individual young enigmatic charismatic leader, but about the people who will be most effective. If the people are not in the fight then it is neither a fight nor a victory; it is just a bunch of noise. And so we adjusted, taking ownership of how we could control the narrative and be best effective. We put the schools most affected out front as the spokespeople. We stood with them, did our job to get support, and added weight to their voice. We let the issue drive the conversation not a personality or a supporting institution. Two years later, the headline read, “15,000 strong protesting…” I was then completing my first year of law school at South Texas College of Law and still organizing the 8 demonstrations that led to the Mississippi state proposed resolution of consolidating the schools. We rejected it. Three years later, the state of Mississippi entered in to a settlement agreement with all 3 schools.
SAVIOR MENTALITY vs: COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESS
Often times, we allow other people to define our leaders and our movements. We gravitate towards our own demise. The savior mentality will only undermine our ability to be a forward-thinking operating community. There will be no one person to come save us. “We be it.” Yes, with all that beautiful English, WE BE IT. The “we” means all of us, a collective consciousness.
DR. NA’IM AKBAR used to speak at our campus every year about Collective Consciousness. Through this collective consciousness, one of the things we don’t respect as a people and we often frown down upon until we see an urgency, is the power of the collective.
Look at current political landscape. I don’t care where you are located in America. If you are rooted as an African-American with the family lineage of “the struggle,” then I can ask 10 black folks from 10 different parts of this country the same questions about the political landscape and I would get almost the same answer. Why? Because we can see it if nobody else sees it. It is a protective sense of discernment that we are innately born with that develops over time. Most communities look at us with envy around that, but we never appreciate it. What would happen if we could really galvanize our collective consciousness around a proactive, strategic approach that is not based on a few benefitting and many others serving? That has to be the model moving forward. So, where are we now? The movement for Black Lives Matter.
#BLACK LIVES MATTER Movement
Is a beautiful thing. Young people taking to the streets. When I was put in place as interim President in 2017, I was asked, “what are you going to do with them?” My job, as I saw it, was to embrace them and support them. Why? Because social justice is not a competition. We have never won anything that we have fought for without inter-generational inclusions in movements; not one generation versus the other, not classism.
In the 50’s and 60’s, when HARRY BELAFONTE was the most famous black entertainer he traveled to Mississippi often in support of the Movement. He understood that he had an obligation to the community that had “brought him to the table,” so he would speak clearly about what that role was—bringing his celebrity and influence as equity in order to leverage broader support, exposure and resources for the movement. He didn’t support one organization or one individual; he supported everybody. So, whether it was NAACP for this, or SNCC here, or King there, his job was to bring his brand of celebrity to support those who were on the front lines. DICK GREGORY was the same.
The problem we have is we need to not let other people define for us this false narrative of a competition that really does not exist. If you go where the need is, people don’t care if it is this organization or that organization. They just want a solution. It is our job to sit down and help them navigate a solution.
An expert is only someone who knows a little more than everyone else in the room at that time and if you are talking about a community problem then those individuals from the community are in fact the experts. You can’t parachute a solution in. What you do is you go in and you figure out how to pull out their knowledge in a way in which they can see that they are actually the experts, and then from there facilitate a process where they can define the path to their solution. There will be no one to parachute into our communities to save us, the solutions are already there.
A SEAT AT THE TABLE
When I look at the current landscape of activism, I am fascinated. What I have found is that our elders are ready and waiting for young people to step up. The problem is that too many young people don’t know how to plug in or the elders don’t know how to identify them. We can change that. We must change that and get everyone to the table. That is the village!
The READS (Pt.2 )
My wife has influenced me as an activist as much as I have influenced my family. I am an extreme extrovert. She is a bankruptcy lawyer who can be an extreme introvert, but with that she actually forces me to read things I would not otherwise read. That then forces me to continue to connect dots and draw parallels that I otherwise would not see.
· Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow is amazing. This is the book that the musical is based on. In it you find the journey of one of the founding fathers that is fascinating and relatable to the journey that we are all on.
· Good To Great by Jim Collins – A must for leadership and team building. We are doing a staff leadership meeting around this one.
· Masters of the Senate by Robert Cairo – CONGRESSMAN BENNIE THOMPSON and I organize an annual leadership conference in Mississippi focused on replenishing the great black infrastructure. This is now our seventh year and we identify 25 people from across the state to come together every 9 months. We select the participants based on who is helping others consistently. There is no title and there is no predetermined reward. These are great people doing what is needed in their communities because that is who they are as people. There is no educational background requirement.
The MEDITATION (when you think Legacy + Heritage)
‘Operate from a surplus mentality and not a deficit.’
As a people, we often talk about what we can’t do, what we won’t do, and how we can’t get along when we are full of historical examples of how we have overcome, how we do get along, and what we can accomplish jointly. Go to any community and look at the cornerstone of the church and that is cooperative economics at its best. However, we don’t see it for what it is because we operate from a deficit mindset. What if we started operating from a surplus mindset and giving merit to our skills and talents? We, define culture for America. We have not yet figured out how to monetize that beyond the individual act. How do we bring to bare our cooperative black experience like that of the black church with how we define and display culture the likes of which have never been seen in the history of this planet? With all of the mediums of media available to us how can we be able to commodify that in support of the communities we come from? That would be great.
The NAACP has one of the strongest infrastructures of local people across the country. We have units in 47 out of 50 states; small rural local communities and large cities. My goal is to ensure that their NAACP experience and journey is as beneficial to the work they are providing and the community they are serving as possible.
We are a bottom-up structure, not a top-down. We are congregationally led—a small-D democracy. My imprint is how do I empower all of those individuals—the expert-hardworking volunteers—who are sacrificing their time to make sure there is a voice within their communities for the people who can’t speak for themselves? How can we ensure their journeys? How do we make certain the supports they need are in place so we are able to make democracy work for our people and the nation while having the protection necessary for a whole community around public and corporate policy issues? That is my meditation because if we do not we will be, as we have been, exploited.
5 Things I Can’t Live Without
I have never really thought about what I can’t live without. I am not certain there are five things so I will speak to the ones that first come to mind:
· Letitia, my wife – the most obvious
· Ability to help others