Torch Bearer

It’s a Tuesday evening and NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson is rushing. He’s trying to grab a bite to eat before the next meeting and before he has to get on the road again. 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, Johnson earned his undergraduate degree from Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., and his law degree from South Texas College of Law in Houston. In 1993, he was a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Fellow, working in the office of Democrat Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi.

After Hurricane Katrina, Johnson founded One Voice to provide 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; 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.

In October 2017, the NAACP National Board of Directors elected 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. The Crisis caught up with Johnson to discuss his long history of organizing and the future of the NAACP. The Crisis: Tell me about your childhood. Whom did you admire? Derrick Johnson: I grew up in Detroit, Mich. Growing up I really gained an appreciation for politics watching our mayor, Coleman Young, on the news and how he would be very clear and focused on the need of the citizens of Detroit, overwhelmingly majority Black, being both respected and providing the necessary services. And there were several times where the city suffered through budget cuts as a result of the federal government cut back when [President Ronald] Reagan was in office and [Mayor Young] was very clear that he would make it a priority that young people will have summer jobs. That’s when others would attack his leadership or the city of Detroit. He had a clear statement that if you didn't like the way I run the city of Detroit, take your "A" on the other side of Eight Mile [Road]. That type of clear, strong voice from an African-American male, advocating for his citizens, majority Black citizens, was something that was of interest. Who were your role models? I had a bunch of role models growing up. One, my great aunt; second, the person who was almost like my grandfather who lived next door; thirdly, my great aunt who had deceased, her best friend’s husband, Adell; and the person who was like my stepfather. Being able to see the world through their eyes — Black men who served in World War II, one in the Korean War, who migrated to the North to get jobs — was enlightening and it was the thing that allowed me to build a sense of self and responsibility. What did your mother do? My mother ran the childcare program for the Catholic school down the street from my house. First, kids were coming to our house and she would charge and there were so many kids there that she ended up having to move the program to the school itself. So there are like more than two generations of young people who know my mother from running the after-school program for the Catholic school. She was an entrepreneur? She figured out a way to get by. I was the only child growing up in the inner city of a rough neighborhood, and because of her and her standing in the community, I was able to navigate in spaces and in ways in which most kids would have seen that environment as dangerous. I understood it as being just a reality in which I lived, but because of my mother, I couldn't sell drugs or couldn't get involved because all of the guys who were older who sold drugs and other things, they knew my mother; therefore they wouldn't allow me to do it because I was seen as someone who was supposed to go to school. What did you want to be when you grew up? I had a friend of mine who made this statement not too long ago: that growing up, we didn't even know what was possible. There were many times I said I wanted to be an architect. I didn't know what an architect was, I just heard somebody say it at one time. I wanted to be an engineer; I didn't know what that meant. I just said I wanted to be an engineer. And so over time, I did realize that I wanted to do something that could have some impact. I began to develop an understanding, an appreciation of history and the [Civil Rights] Movement. But I didn't know what I wanted to do growing up. Why did you go to Tougaloo College in Mississippi? I ended up going to Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., as a result of two librarians, both of whom were graduates of Tougaloo. They took an interest in me and pretty much said that this is the school I should go to. I was very intellectually curious around civil rights and history; and so, they would make sure that I read certain kinds of books and always pushed me in ways in which I really appreciated. And as a result of that, I ended up going to Tougaloo, a school that I later learned was central to the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi and nationally, but also had a mission for students to be engaged in social justice. Once I got there I was pushed to continuously be engaged in social justice work. Had you been to Mississippi before? No. What were your biggest misconceptions of the state? I didn't have a deep understanding of Mississippi. My biggest misperception, which became a reality, was that it was rural. It was not like Detroit. It was different. It was small. It was a slower pace and, of course, there were the stories about the South in general, some of which involved Mississippi. I didn't know what to expect. But what I learned when I got there was there was a tight-knit African-American community. There was a history of resistance. There was a legacy of social justice, and there was a set of individuals who had been a part of different iterations of the Movement in the state of Mississippi, many of whom were somehow connected to Tougaloo College. I was able to touch and meet individuals whom I’d read about in history books or who were involved in incidents and things that I read about, and I found it fascinating. Why did you go to law school? What was your goal? At Tougaloo, the majority of the people on campus either were pre-law or pre-med. I knew I didn't want to take any more math classes and I was not very good in science, so I immediately said I was pre-law, which translates into I was a political science major. But through that experience in meeting many, many people who would come onto the campus and knowing that 50 percent of all of the Black lawyers in the state of Mississippi at that time were all Tougaloo graduates, it just seemed like a logical and natural next step. I recall my adviser in college calling me after I took the LSAT test. He had my scores and [told me] I did pretty good on the test, yet he didn't know what my plans were. I hadn't applied anywhere. [There was] one particular law school he had money for me to go, and I needed to fill that application out immediately. And that ultimately became the school I attended. Your goal was not to be a civil rights attorney? I had never met an African-American lawyer, had never met an African-American doctor. I knew of one doctor, a brother, but I'd never personally met anyone who was professional. I came from a pretty rough neighborhood and I'm the first in my family to finish college. And so being at Tougaloo, I just followed what was expected of the students there; that everyone there was expected to go to graduate or professional school, and I simply followed suit. So on campus it was oftentimes not asked what you're going to do when you graduate. It was stated where you're going when you graduated, i.e., what medical school, what law school, or graduate school you were going to attend. And so not to be left out, I simply said I was pre-law, so I'm going to law school. Had no concept of what that truly meant. Why did you return to Mississippi after law school? Hollis Watkins, who's a civil rights veteran and the first individual who was recruited as a student in high school to be a student organizer, asked me what was I going to do when I finished law school. I told him I was going to go back and work in D.C. with Rep. Bennie Thompson. He said, well come back to Mississippi. He said work for me. So I decided to join the staff at Southern Echo, a nonprofit in Mississippi. Tell me about Southern Echo. Southern Echo was a nonprofit organization started by Hollis Watkins, Mike Sayre and Margaret Burnham. These were three organizers who were active in the 1960s. Hollis was also active as a youth member of the NAACP. And what Hollis wanted to do was to re-create an effort that he felt was unfinished from the 1960s through a nonprofit organization where they could train local leaders to advocate for their community. And with that they had a focus on civic engagement with the understanding of redistricting and other areas where African Americans, primarily in the Delta, could have a voice in the formation of public policy. What was your role in Southern Echo? I was brought on as one of the lead community organizers. But because I had a law degree, I could also provide legal, along with technical assistance to communities as they considered their options around policy issues that they defined. Oftentimes I found myself facilitating discussions with community leaders as they pursued solutions related to voting, education and other issues that they identified as important. Why did you work at Southern Echo? Hollis Watkins was one of my mentors. He was a person who truly knew how to pull people together. He had a very soft touch, but a determined spirit. I learned from him the power of pushing leadership forward. He was the person who helped me understand that leadership is not about getting in front of the room. As an organizer, it was our job to identify the skills and talents of the leadership in communities and for us to push them forward and provide the necessary support. They were the experts on the communities, not those of us who came from outside of the community. We should always respect that expertise because in that expertise oftentimes were the solutions that many of them were looking for. Why was it important for you to work at Southern Echo? For me, I think it was a part of my growth and development. If I segmented my growth and development into clear periods or trainings, of course it was the formal training in school, be it K-12 or in college. It was the exposure and the challenge that I received from my peers at Tougaloo College as we oftentimes debated issues of Black nationalism, Pan Africanism, segregation and all types of other isms. But it was individuals such as Hollis who deepened in me an appreciation of the power of local leadership and everyday people. Another segmentation was working with Congressman Thompson to understand the power of political machinery and how to build, maintain and allow machinery to evolve with the times. A deep appreciation was developed by me through my exposure and working with Aaron Henry in the NAACP, and that appreciation of institutions and how institutions are used as vehicles to carry our community through. The NAACP has been a mainstay in terms of one of those institutional vehicles. What was your first introduction to the NAACP? I joined the NAACP when I was a student at a two-year college named Mary Holmes College, that has since closed. It was a two-year HBCU (Historically Black College and University) [in West Point, Miss]. The women's dorm counselor, Rebecca Henry, was the daughter of Aaron Henry, who at that time was the NAACP state conference president of Mississippi, and had been so for about 31 years, and one of the original civil rights leaders. He was the state president of the Mississippi NAACP when Medgar Evers was the field secretary for Mississippi. It was through Rebecca that I got involved in the NAACP. We organized the first college chapter at Mary Holmes College. From there I attended my first state meeting. I went to that meeting with Aaron Henry, who picked us up from the campus. To my surprise, in that first meeting I was sitting in a discussion where individuals I had read about in the history books were actually in the room talking about current issues. From that point forward, I was hooked. I was completely clear that the NAACP that I had read about was still active and engaged, and these civil rights icons were still involved, which I was shocked about. I was intrigued, and as a result I became more and more active with the organization. At the beginning of your presidency, you and Chairman [Leon] Russell went on a listening tour. What did you learn from the listening tour? 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 when it was founded. 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 for public policy, whether it's on the local, state or federal level. We oftentimes take for granted what has always been there. It gave me an opportunity to truly deepen my appreciation for the many, many, many, many individuals who were members of the Association or members of the African-American community [and] their desire for the Association to not only strengthen its ability to respond to the needs and interests of our communities, but innovate ... and be much more effective in doing so. Was there a criticism that you heard repeatedly during the listening tour? Yes. The most constant issue we heard as we moved across the country was the processing of the membership cards, of all things. People were upset because they had joined the Association and had not received their membership cards timely. I knew it was crucial for me once I was named president and CEO to fix that problem and that for our members, small things matter. But it was more than can we be responsive on the small things such as processing membership cards. The question really was, can we be responsive in terms of addressing a political climate that was infected with racial hate and intolerance? There was a time when you could be fired if you were a member of the NAACP. The value of the brand is based on the energy of the people that make up our membership. For many individuals, having the small recognition of the membership card to certify that you care about our community, that you invest in our community, and that you are one of the many voices that are prepared to speak on behalf of our community is an important symbol of the freedom that we have fought for and that we continue to fight for. And so, I completely appreciate why the small issue of getting a membership card processed on time became such a big issue because it was the sacrifice that many made simply to have a voice to make democracy work for all. What do you want to assure the NAACP membership? For me, my goal is to work to ensure that local leadership is able to clearly work with and articulate the needs and interests of the community they represent in a way in which that voice is not suffocated or they're both suppressed by outside forces. We are the conscience of this nation, and in order for the conscience of this nation to truly do all what's necessary, it's going to require local leaders collectively understanding the power of their leadership and standing together to push for an agenda that represents, not the individual, but the collective whole of the African-American community. It's the 110th anniversary of the NAACP. Why has this Association lasted so long and what is it going to take for it to last another 110 years? It's my belief that the reason the NAACP has been able to last 110 years is because we value the power of local leadership. We are a bottom-up structure, not a top-down structure. We're driven by our members who are volunteers across the country. Our policy priorities are developed as a result of individuals across the country who come together and they inform the direction of the Association. And because of that, there's never been one leader of the Association, so to speak. There've been many leaders of the Association and an individual to serve as the spokesperson of all of the leadership across the country.

In order for us to exist for another 110 years we must honor and support local leadership. As I tell staff often, our job is to work for our bosses, plural, and our bosses are the members across the country. To ensure that their relationship with the NAACP is as user-friendly as possible so that they can focus their energy on impact in the formation of public policy, being the voice for those who cannot speak for themselves and representing the needs and interests of our communities, wherever our communities exist. That's the secret sauce to our success, and that will be the secret to our future.

— Interview by Lottie L. Joiner / Editor in Chief