Aside from being peppered for our support of some incumbents on the Detroit City Council, one particular endorsement created the biggest firestorm.
Our support of Raphael Johnson, a 34- year-old Detroiter who at the age of 17 went to prison in a murder case for 11 years, had some listeners on the Mildred Gaddis show on WCHB AM 1200 riled up.
Some of the callers on the show that I periodically frequent, asked in rhetorical deftness, how dare we endorse an ex-convict, a murderer?
They could not understand the rationale behind our support for a young man who made a terrible mistake growing up, but has since repented and dramatically transformed his life for the betterment of Detroit.
Since my appearance on Gaddis’ show last week, I have been confronted by those who believe that Raphael Johnson does not belong to the Detroit City Council. Ironically they do not object to his transformation,
but according to their own standards it’s too soon for him to be part of the biggest civic institution in Detroit.
Currently, the City of Detroit has no clear set standards for those running for office. That is why the Charter Revision Commission is crucial in making it clear who is eligible to run.
But for now Johnson, like anybody else, can run.
We did not endorse a murderer. We endorsed
a changed man.
Raphael Johnson paid the price for the crime he committed. The family of the victim could make a legitimate argument that there is no price to compensate for the loss of Johnny Havard.
And I fully agree with that, as in all such cases.
But Johnson, unlike many, came out of prison and changed his life and obtained a formal education from the University of Detroit Mercy. He is married and the father of two children. He is an example of the power of transformation and what can happen to those who were in the dark but now see the light.
He wrote his autobiography, “To Pose a Threat: My Rite of Passage,” the foreword of which was written by former Detroit News senior editor and ARISE Detroit! founder Luther Keith.
In the book, Johnson explains his mistakes and takes the reader through the difficult period that eventually made him a productive member of society. He knows very well he’s made a crucial mistake and continues to regret it as he acknowledged in an e-mail to me last week. “Lord knows I’m still paying for it,” he said.
Because of the power of his story, Johnson’s book was inducted into the African American Literature Special Collection at Wayne State University.
He was the national winner of Steve Harvey’s Best Community Leader Hoodie Award and has been a teen advisor for “The Maury Show.” He is a business owner who runs Total Package Lifestyle, LLC.
But there is something in life called “second chance.” It is a tool that we have always used to allow those who’ve made serious mistakes to repent and become a great asset to society.
However, as I listened to some of the callers on the show vehemently opposing Johnson’s candidacy, I asked myself if it was their own son that has changed his life so positively and now making a run for City Council, would they be putting forth much opposition?
Why can’t we accept the idea that everybody deserves a second chance without limits when they’ve shown evidence to justify it?
Why do we have to push to close the chapter of someone’s life after they have shown remorse for their mistake and moved on with their life?
Am I condoning the mistake?
And if it was someone else who had committed a similar crime and subsequently changed their life as Johnson has, I would still push for a second chance without limits.
All I am saying is that the human heart has the capacity for genuine transformation and remorse. And when that transformation happens it behooves us to give that person a second chance without any limitations that will hinder their growth and potential for the advancement of our community.
Last year, Johnson testified before the United States Congress during the passage of the Juvenile Justice Accountability and Recovery Act of 2007 HR 4300, which allows for young inmates to be considered for release if they’ve shown considerable progress in transforming their lives behind prison walls.
If the United States Congress could see him as a standard bearer for a makeover after such a grievous teenage mistake, why shouldn’t we, being members of his own community, his kith and kin, accept him, not for what he was, but for what he has become — a change man?
Nelson Mandela is today venerated all around the world and seen as a champion of Black dignity and Black liberation. He is the world’s leading statesman. But though he was wrongly convicted, the fact remains that he spent time behind bars, was a political prisoner, who became the first Black president of South Africa, Africa’s number one economy and the only African member of the G-20 and G-5 nations.
And it wasn’t until last year that Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) were removed from the U.S. terror list. President Ronald Reagan had placed the ANC on the list in the 1980s.
“Today the United States moved closer, at last, to removing the great shame of the dishonoring this great leader by including him on our government’s terror watch list,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) after a Congressional bill was approved to do so.
To the shock of the Western world and Black activists, Mandela, after serving 27 years of jail time, was quick to forgive and to set up the machinery for national reconciliation in a society that for decades has been bifurcated along racial lines and racial enmity.
He created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that championed the cause of forgiving those who killed thousands of Blacks in their own land, including children, in 1976 in Soweto who were asking for better education.
Mandela never pushed for an international criminal court to try those who were guilty of apartheid. Today there are apartheid culprits walking free in South Africa because Mandela’s hope for a better South Africa is rooted and grounded in the spirit of redemptive transformation and forgiveness.
Mandela gave those racists, whose hands are covered with the blood of apartheid victims, a second chance to change in a new South Africa.
Detroit’s Judge Greg Mathis was sitting in jail on drug and gun charges in his teen years as a member of the street gang, the Erroll Flynns, until he was given a second chance by Wayne County Judge Charles Kaufman.
Kaufman told Mathis he could avoid jail time if he would obtain a GED. Mathis did at the age of 18, honoring a promise he made to his mother, Alice Mathis.
Today he is one of the world’s most celebrated television and became the youngest judge in Michigan’s history. His name has even been tossed around for a run for mayor of Detroit.
Before the May 5 mayoral special election, I bumped into Judge Mathis at the Detroit Breakfast House and had a brief chat with him. He did not express any interest in running for mayor.
If we rightly accept and honor our own Judge Mathis and venerate Mandela for their transformational stories, shouldn’t we in that same spirit accept and honor the transformation and commitment of a young man like Johnson who has made himself a better person?
Former mayoral candidate Freman Hendrix spoke loudly on the campaign trail about the need to address the plight of Black men and women coming out of prison. We would have to devise a program that helps these men and women change their lives and become productive members of society.
We cannot keep this issue under the rug. That is why I welcome the debate surrounding Johnson’s eligibility to run for public office in the absence of a guidance rule set forth by the city. After all, the existence of ex-cons is an ongoing reality that must be acknowledged and dealt with effectively.
Those who have changed their lives like Johnson, Yusef Shakur and others should be embraced to become more productive in our community, not thrown away into the lion’s den.
Shakur today is leading HOPE (Helping Our Prisoner Elevate), a group that sponsors bus trips for families of the incarcerated every year. HOPE also provides back-to-school supplies to children of incarcerated parents. In addition, HOPE is the author of Building Bridges, a workbook that assists children whose parents are behind bars in dealing with the trauma and challenge of the situation.
What kind of rehabilitation goes on behind prison walls given the high rate of recidivism in the African-American community? What kind of preparation do we have for those coming out of prison? Because they belong to this community we have to deal with them.
Is it more expensive to incarcerate than to educate?
Detroit Police Chief Warren Evans recently credited Johnson for gathering young Black men on the east side to patrol a neighborhood where a serial rapist (eventually caught) was on the loose. Evans called Johnson “a friend and a mentor.”
Civil rights matriarch Rosa Parks once said, “You cannot expect children to know what they have not been taught.”
That means that as parents we are biologically and morally obligated to raise our children to understand and appreciate the value of life.
The mistakes that our children make in the streets are a reflection of the value system that exists in the home.
We cannot abdicate our responsibility of instilling the values of honesty, responsibility and respect for human life in our children.
Meaningful transformation will have to begin in the home because our young people are today competing for a better life against the negative and seemingly overwhelming distractions that the larger society
So Raphael Johnson and many other like him, including Shakur, who have changed their lives, are a testament to the unfinished business in Black America.
Senior Editor Bankole Thompson is a radio and television analyst, sought after moderator and public lecturer. His latest book is “A Matter of Black Transformation.” E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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