On Sunday I caught up with Derrick Johnson, President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as he prepared to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Johnson is the new president and CEO of the nation’s largest and most storied civil rights organization, and he has stepped up into the position at a time of increased racial and political polarization, and of growing calls for better leadership among black activists and organizers.
Johnson took over the organization in July on the heels of the dismissal of former President Cornell Brooks amid concerns that the NAACP had not been aggressive enough in opposing the elements of Trump’s agenda seen as harmful to African Americans. Johnson is focused on galvanizing voters as we head into the crucial 2018 midterm elections.
Some sections of this conversation have been condensed.
Antonia Hylton: What have you been reflecting on as we approach MLK day?
Derrick Johnson: The celebration of Martin Luther King Day for us is an opportunity to reflect on that purpose around the fight for social justice. At the NAACP our main goal is to make democracy work for all. Dr. King's legacy was a legacy of advocating for a beloved community that all men will be measured and seen as equal and that the constitution will be afforded equally to all citizens. That is the work of the NAACP.
AH: Is it strange right now to be reflecting on MLK’s legacy just days after the President of our country, leader of the free world, reportedly used the word “shithole” to describe Haiti and other African nations?
DJ: I think the current political landscape and the comments of the president reaffirms the need for social justice movements and NAACP. And it is a true opportunity to lean in in terms of understanding why Dr. King's work and the work of so many others was so important. While also understanding that all of us have a responsibility to ensure we do the basics of respecting every individual and their rights to be afforded equal protection under the law.
AH: Were you surprised by the comment? Do you believe President Trump is a racist?
DJ: The question of whether he’s a racist was for me was settled a long time ago. The NAACP is a nonpartisan organization. We don't tell people how to vote. But we do want them to fully participate and be educated on their options.
I think the pivot point for us now is to really look at the 2018 midterm election cycle and to become and remain energized to ensure that our voices are heard through voting. I think the president's comments, the current political environment, and many individuals’ outlook have created a space where I predict an enhanced and active and energized African-American electorate.
AH: On Meet the Press Civil Rights leader Andrew Young was asked, “How do you educate a 71 year old man, President Donald Trump, on the issue of race.” I'm curious what you’d say to that question.
DJ: I don't think it is our job to try to educate someone who's been elected commander-in-chief. It is our job to ensure that the policies that he espoused are not adopted and affect our lives. We cannot be distracted by small minded comments and or ignorant comments to the point where we don't keep our eye on the fact that we have over a hundred federal judicial appointments at stake, we have executive orders that have been rolled back, and we have pieces of legislation which will have a devastating impact on our communities for years to come.
AH: Right now it seems there are two narratives about black people and political engagement. One is that black people are depressed, organizations like the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have faded, and we don’t have a coherent movement. The other is that black people are going to come out as a force in the midterms so everyone owes black people a big thank you for holding our democracy up on their backs. Which narrative is right?
DJ: The African American community has never been a monolith nor should we be. There is no community as dynamic as the African American community. I also want to mention that social justice is not a competition. So there is no distinction between the NAACP and any other organization. It is our goal to support a platform for young people to be engaged and if they choose NAACP as their vehicle for engagement, great, and if they choose another vehicle it is our role to make sure they have the space and ability to engage. If you think about the history of the movement of social justice it has never been a one-generation movement. It has always been an intergenerational movement. It has always been a multifaceted movement, it has always been a movement of many voices in many organizations. And today's reality is no different.
AH: The black vote was probably decisive in helping Doug Jones defeat Roy Moore in Alabama. At the same time there are black people who feel dejected right now who are afraid that, for example, white supremacist movements are gaining more political ground than people of color are.
DJ: We have individuals who are in public policy positions that don't represent the majority of this nation, black or white. But the anxiety that we see also propels action and it is our goal at the NAACP to ensure that the fear that we see is not a fear that paralyzes individuals to inaction. It is a fear that propels individuals to get engaged to be involved and turn out at record levels like we've just seen in Alabama and in Virginia.
AH: Are you at all worried that black action is going to be met by backlash?
DJ: We've already seen levels of voter suppression. I think it would very myopic to think that black action alone is going to carry the day. It will also be very narrow for us to be in fear of the reaction. In a democracy your vote is your currency. And we believe that every citizen should have unfettered access to vote. We are a hard working community we put a tremendous amount of resources into the system that we want to make sure that the roads we travel are safe, the bridges that we drive across are sturdy, and the delivery systems such as education provide the highest quality possible.
AH: I reached out to young black friends, to professionals and relatives about what they would want to ask you if they had the chance to sit across from you. Some of them responded that they're just not sure what the NAACP is doing right now. Spell out for me what 2018 will look like and what you might do to make sure people who feel like they’re out of the fold are brought back in?
DJ: I would encourage them to keep exploring how they can use their time, their talents, and their tools to be a voice for those who are unable to speak to themselves. And whatever vehicle they use organizationally, that is a choice that they must make and that choice should be based on what feels better and fits their personality and their political and local reality. And the NAACP supports that choice! It is not our goal to dictate to any young person what vehicle to use. It is our goal to encourage young people to be involved, to get engaged. And as far as what 2018 looks like for the NAACP. It is a year focused in on the midterm elections. It is about putting more people in the polls to ensure that democracy works for all. If democracy works for all and we have an increased voice in who represents us and the public policies that they are willing to advance then we are stronger as a nation.