by CJ Brinson
The Rev. Nelson Johnson, the embattled civil rights leader, has committed his life’s work to serving people. Whether through the Greensboro Association of Poor People, the National Black Student Movement, the Pan Africanist Movement or the Communist Workers Party, Johnson has sacrificed his self, career and family serving the oppressed. If one was to find the oppressed in the 21st Century, we would look to communities of color, the poor, women, children, the LGBTQIA community, Muslims and any other person experiencing the very worst society has to offer.
It is no secret that Johnson has been controversial in some respects, but it has always been clear that he is undeniably committed to serving. However, a person with such a track record as Johnson, a person whose being is rooted in the movement, has experienced an existence in the community that has been akin to that of Jesus and his ministry in Nazareth. Jesus finds himself being rejected in his own community like Johnson, and says that “a prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”
The words of Jesus resonate with me deeply, because here is a man like Jesus, who at the drop of hat puts his neck out on the line for others. Yet, there are still members of Johnson’s community, and members who reside in this city, who have involved themselves in a campaign to discredit his life’s work. Supposed servants, such as political officials, both black and white, police officers, and even members of the clergy, all of whom claim to serve the people, are unwilling to stick their necks out with Johnson when it really matters the most.
Where is his banquet, or street named in his honor? We have a civil rights museum, right here in this city and you couldn’t find a pamphlet, let alone an exhibit that highlights the Greensboro Massacre in 1979. A massacre in which Johnson and five other organizers were viciously attacked by the Klan and Nazis. Not only were they attacked like prey, but those other five organizers were assassinated and others severely wounded for simply trying to organize textile workers. Then again the scandal is not in the attack per se, but in the fact that the Greensboro Police Department didn’t provide proper security to prevent the attack. The community has even had to recently be reminded by Black Lives Matter activists that the police department has yet to officially apologize for the incident.
As we face a policing crisis in our country, two weeks ago at an event on policing and race, starring renowned author Michelle Alexander, our mayor started dreaming about this same corrupt department being able to police communities of color with compassion. This event was born out of a community-city working group of middle-class officials, black and white, and even clergy. It was also at this same event that Johnson ridiculed the assertion of the mayor, based on the historical culture of policing in this city. He offered evidence in the form of federal documents suggesting the Greensboro Police Department was involved in further assassination attempts of this civil rights hero’s life. Johnson said the culture has to change within in the police department in order to rescue marginalized communities from an institution that is intent on feeding the beast of mass incarceration.
Unfortunately, what should have been met with praise and admiration was met with contempt and backlash against Johnson. Some even had the nerve to accuse this hero of self-aggrandizement. Nevertheless, the fact remains the same for those who accuse this humble servant; and that is that you can’t have a conversation in this community about the perils of corrupt policing without uttering the name of the Rev. Johnson. To those historical revisionists, you can’t erase Johnson’s name from the history of the culture of police violence in this city, because Johnson’s experience is tied to the truth.
So as we build upon the work of the community-city working group on Thursday at our very first district meetings on policing and race, it is my hope that those who have taken the correct step in path of justice won’t turn their backs on the opportunity to bring this city to its knees in regards to police abuse of power. Please don’t abort the mission now because things are getting hard. Let us not become so complacent in our middle-class homes, or our identities as Americans, that we lose sight of being free. Let us continue to stand with our prophet. We must put our necks out there, as the Rev. Johnson does, and align with the prophetic tradition, because… the time is now.
CJ Brinson is a concerned citizen of Greensboro, youth pastor at Faith Community Church and student at Hood Theological Seminary.