A Conversation with NAACP President Derrick Johnson

NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson

In October 2017, the NAACP national board of directors elected Derrick Johnson President and CEO of the NAACP. His long history in the Association has certainly prepared him for this moment. It is indeed a critical time for the NAACP and our nation as White House policies threaten important civil rights gains.

Over the past two years, Johnson has been moving nonstop as head of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. There’s fundraising, speeches, media appearances and, of course, building a team that will address what he sees as the biggest issues facing communities of color in the next five years: minority participation in the 2020 census, redistricting and the 2020 presidential election.

A native of Detroit, Mich., Johnson earned his undergraduate degree from Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., and his law degree from South Texas College of Law in Houston, Texas. In 1993, he was a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Fellow, working in the office of Democratic Congressman Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi.

After Hurricane Katrina, Johnson founded One Voice, an organization that provides staffing support, technical assistance, research and training to community groups in Mississippi. One Voice has established important pipeline programs to help volunteer organizations such as the NAACP and has built out a progressive Black network across the state of Mississippi.

Johnson’s roots in the NAACP go back more than 30 years. He was a charter member of the NAACP student chapter at Mary Holmes College in Mississippi. Then he served as a college chapter president at Tougaloo and went on to become the state youth and college division president for the Mississippi State Conference. In 2004, Johnson was elected NAACP Mississippi State Conference president and several years later, he was elected to the national board of directors.

“Pretty much all of my career and my professional development as an adult has been spent volunteering for the NAACP,” Johnson noted.

The Crisis caught up with Johnson to discuss the future of the NAACP.

The Crisis: What are your goals as president of the NAACP, the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization?

Derrick Johnson: As a membership-based organization with the mission of simply making democracy work for everyone, we must be engaged with the civic engagement calendar. During the midterm elections in 2018, I thought it was important for us to launch a demonstration project to show that we could initiate a process where we could move the needle to get individuals who are considered infrequent voters — people who vote in presidential elections, but not in midterm elections — involved in the election. We looked at 2019 and identified states that have state-based elections but we're also preparing for the census, the counting of the population. The census clearly would determine the flow of resources to communities. But it also would set the stage for the drawing of political boundary lines, which we call redistricting. In addition to that, we are looking at the 2020 presidential election. But with all of the elections that will take place, it is important that African Americans have a strong voice in the outcome of the elections.

We've seen from the 2016 cycle that elections have consequences and that the message of intolerance and racial hatred is germinating from the White House. We need to change that landscape so that it could be a more inclusive tone and one in which there’s a democracy that works for everyone, particularly African Americans. As the NAACP, we must play a leading role in energizing, engaging African Americans to be involved on all levels of government and in efforts to impact the formation of public policy.

We've seen from the 2016 cycle that elections have consequences and that the message of intolerance and racial hatred is germinating from the White House.

The Crisis: You and NAACP board chairman Leon Russell conducted a listening tour at the beginning of your tenure as president. What did you learn from the listening tour?

Johnson: The biggest thing I learned from doing the listening tour is a key factor that still drives me today. That's that the NAACP is as relevant today as it was 110 years ago in its founding. The local communities across this country rely on the brand, the energy, the infrastructure of the NAACP so that they can have a vehicle and voice on public policy, whether it's on the local, state or federal level. And that we oftentimes take for granted what has always been there. The listening tour also gave me an opportunity to truly deepen my appreciation for the many, many individuals who were members of the Association and members of the African-American community, their desire for the Association to not only strengthen its ability to respond to the needs and interests of people of color, but innovate ... and be much more effective in doing so.

The Crisis: In your opinion, what are some of the biggest issues African Americans and people of color face today?

Johnson: I think it's a question of hope and belief — having belief that we can accomplish all the things we hope for. For African Americans, we have overcome so much. This year marks the 400th year anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans on the shores of Virginia. We have overcome so many adversities and as a result of that, we stand here stronger, but we have to continue to have the belief that we can get even stronger. And with that belief, it really is the foundation for hope and with hope, it allows us to really grow as a stronger people moving into the future.

The NAACP is as relevant today as it was 110 years ago in its founding.

The Crisis: This is the 65th anniversary of the historic Brown decision which ruled separate but equal public schools unconstitutional. Some would argue that that was the height of the NAACP. How is the NAACP using modern technological tools to address today's social justice relations?

Johnson: The height of the NAACP is yet to be seen. It is our opportunity to seize upon our collective energy to make democracy work for our future. There will always be tools and devices, whether it's technology or otherwise that we can leverage and use, but there is no greater tool or device than the collective whole working in unison towards a goal of securing civil rights for our future generations.