A road to activism

Activist & attorney Martese Johnson gives keynote speech on MLK Day

Attorney, writer and activist Martese Johnson inspired the students at Ferris to be resilient, to tell their stories the way they want to and to succeed, even when things get rough.

Johnson was invited on behalf of the Office of Multicultural Student Services to be the keynote speaker for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration on Monday, Jan. 16. Johnson shared his life story and the difficult road that he had to take to get where he is right now.

Johnson was raised in a single-parent household along with his two other siblings in Chicago, and his childhood was not easy. His mother wanted financial stability and a safe environment for her children. Therefore, his family moved around 11 times before he made it to college.

Even though they were going through tough times, they were always creative and found ways to get things done. Whether it was making a sandwich out of whatever was in the fridge or trading food stamps for cash, his mom and siblings always found a way to look out for each other.

“My mom has been the best parent ever. She pretty much did everything she possibly could with the resources she had,” Johnson said. “I understand that, while my upbringing was difficult, my mother’s upbringing was ten times more difficult, and for her to have the ability to raise her kids in a way that was honorable, I love her for that forever.”

In fifth grade, Johnson was given an opportunity to take the ACT exam, and he made the decision to take the exam for the gifted program at Southside Occupational Academy High School so he could receive a better education. Before Johnson graduated high school, he had around 1 million dollars in college scholarships from different schools.

During his first year of college, as the only Black student in his dorm, Johnson experienced discrimination. One time he was even blocked from going inside his dormitory because the RA assumed he did not live there because of the color of
his skin.

In March 2015, Johnson’s college experience was changed forever. On St. Patrick’s day, Johnson and his friends chose to go out to a bar in Charlottesville. The bar owner knew Johnson personally, however, while walking in, the owner said he shouldn’t drink there because it was a holiday where a lot of out of town cops came to patrol bars. Although Johnson knew the owner, he was told to leave because the color of his skin made his situation unsafe.

“It brought me back to reality that students like us can’t navigate predominantly white spaces with a 100% sense of comfort,” Johnson said. “We always have to have our guards up, and that’s what we’re fighting for — to find the same comfort that those students have when they walk these campuses.”

Johnson didn’t make a scene leaving the bar, but when he left, he encountered three white Alcoholic Beverage Control officers who asked for his identification. After a brief interaction with the officers, he was suddenly slammed to the ground, detained with handcuffs and leg shackles and arrested without justification.

He was then pinned to the ground with an officer’s knee on his back while two other officers held him down. Blood covered his entire face from cuts that would leave scars forever. He spent a night in jail alone and untreated for his injuries, and he was charged with two misdemeanors that were eventually dropped.

Walking into school the next day, Johnson noticed that students were already talking about what happened to him. Some students fought on his behalf, while others had different opinions. When Johnson was legally allowed, he told the full and true story.

“I felt compelled to tell my own story, and once I told my own story, I felt that things were moving in the right direction, and I just think it’s important for anyone in that situation to be able to share their own voice,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s story not only empowered students but faculty as well. Director of Public Safety and Chief of Police Ibrahim Haroon was one of them.

“When he touched bases on community policing and how the officers that mistreated him and assaulted him were not even from that community… In particular, it’s really awesome that there’s a side of his story that I never knew because you never got it. You just thought, like everybody else, it was local law enforcement,” Haroon said.

Haroon was able to understand and relate to Johnson’s difficult childhood, moving from place to place and relying on being resourceful to make it through.

“We were poor, we utilized the food pantry and there were times I didn’t have water and we had to go to the bathroom in buckets… [My mother] did everything that she could in order to keep us afloat,” Haroon said.

Haroon wanted to become a police officer because, although he wasn’t born in the U.S., he understood what the U.S. had to offer, and he wanted to protect it. In comparison, Johnson wanted to become an activist and attorney because of his experience with the police on St. Patrick’s day.

Criminal justice junior and member of the Black Leaders Aspiring for Critical Knowledge Quartez Shah’s attention was caught when Johnson “never gave up.”

“[He] never changed the fact that he wanted to be an attorney. He wanted to help people,” Shah said.

When Johnson ended his presentation, he was met with tears and a standing ovation from the students, faculty, staff and all other audience members that had the opportunity to listen to his story.