KY Commission on Human Rights Director Reflects on Charleston Shootings

Jul 1, 2015

John Johnson, Executive Director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights
Credit personnel.ky.gov

The NAACP writes on their Facebook page: "After tireless work and Congressional hearings that led to the Church Arson Prevention Act being passed in 1996 - almost 20 years later, we must again seek justice, investigate and find #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches. Six black churches have burned since the terrorist attack at Emanuel AME Church." Executive Director of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights John Johnson was the youngest president of any NAACP chapter at the age of 18 and spent 20 years working at the national headquarters before his current position. He spoke with Kate Lochte last week before the funeral for victims of the Charleston shooting, about it being long past time for racism to exist and how he thinks law enforcement can improve practices in black communities.

"It's hard to put in words the feeling people have as a result of the actions of that young man," John Johnson says. It raises the question of the actions of what our generation and the generation before us have done to allow a young man's mind to come to that conclusion, he says, adding that while many have argued against the Confederate flag and other symbols of racism and conservatism in the past, others have gone out of their way to continue to honor and highlight those symbols. He wonders if those things have had a bearing on the shooter's thinking and logic.

So how do we talk about this in a way that makes a difference rather than the same old conversations? Johnson says we are sometimes shocked into reality, forcing us to reassess civil rights. He wonders if this has started a broader mindfulness on human rights issues in the world and if actions or messages by segments of the population drive even stronger wedges between the racial, cultural and political divide.

Johnson is working on a piece on lynching in Kentucky. He read that Kentucky wasn't the "worst state in the South" in terms of numbers but was one of the most gruesome in acts of violence. It's part of our history, he says, and as a society we hope to get past that. Talking is a starting point but people refuse to realize the implications things like symbolic images of slavery have in young people's minds.

But the sad incident in Charleston has expanded the conversation. You can't move forward and out of the past at the same time, he says.

"We have to as a society, it seems to me, acknowledge that we have had racism in our country and we still deal with racism. And we not glorify the past in terms of that sort of action and we ought to acknowledge what those symbols represent. For people who run around talking about 'Oh to some people it may mean slavery, it may mean racism, but to us it means our history and our grandparents and what they stood for and great grandparents.' Well, your great grandparents stood for racism. Your great grandparents stood for slavery. They have to acknowledge that and try to move forward from that. I'm sorry, I don't mean to get emotional about it, but it's just my thought."

What is the situation in Kentucky with respect to law enforcement practices in the black community? Officers throughout Kentucky are aware of what they've seen across the country, he says. Some cities have begun training with officers and building bridges between the gaps trying to engender conversations about race relations and communication.

Johnson describes a police officer in Louisville 40 years ago whose beat was in the heart of the most impoverished black community. People knew him as 'Officer Frank.' He helped people across the street, tipped his hat and said 'good morning ma'am' to people when he walked down the street. Johnson says while people may think of this as old fashioned, people respected him because they knew him and he knew them. He encourages law enforcement officials to reach out more and be a part of those communities. We are fearful of creating an atmosphere where things break down and we're forced to bring people together. Things can be done to prevent a breakdown and what otherwise might be a tragedy in the future.

Yesterday, the NAACP warned congregations of black churches to take precautions in the wake of a series of burning of churches.

More about the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights