Wright Words: Meet a former Black Panther affiliate, inmate, Mormon

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 5 2014 2:45 p.m. MDT

John Johnson held a gun to the sleeping officer’s head.

His finger tickled the trigger.

Johnson had been searching for this man’s car. He’d hunted him. He’d craved the opportunity to shoot point-blank and serve justice. In Johnson’s eyes, the officer, also a black man, was the worst kind of enemy in racially charged 1984 Louisiana. The officer was a powerful figure with a reputation for beating up other black men and enjoying it.

As the officer slept in his cruiser, Johnson breathed deep and prepared to end the bully’s life. He heard a voice cheering him on. “Shoot, shoot, shoot,” it said. “Kill him.”

Instantly, the atmosphere around him changed. Even now, three decades after that pivotal scene, he struggles to describe the moment. He wasn’t afraid because he didn’t recognize the voice; he was frightened because he did.

“I knew the voice,” Johnson told me during a recent telephone interview. “And I realized then that I had developed a personal relationship with the adversary.”

Tears flowed and Johnson slowly turned and stepped away from the car, dismantling the gun as he walked home in the late night shadows.

He didn’t know it then, but he wasn’t just walking away from darkness and sin.

He was walking toward light and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

John Johnson was born in Kenner, Louisiana, in 1956. By age 13, he was attending "Black Power" meetings. He affiliated with the Black Panthers, though he was too young to sign the charter. His mother was deeply entrenched in the Civil Rights movement, and his siblings were Black Power radicals.

In 1973, Johnson enlisted in the military, but bad friends and poor choices landed him in the drug trade. At just 18 years old, he was in prison facing 15 years for drug trafficking. The young black inmate was beaten, shamed and hardened. Early in his sentence, he received 90 days in solitary confinement and began, in his words, “making deals with the devil.”

“Get me out of here,” he pled each hour of every lonely day.

Once, as punishment, his cell was soaked with a hose and two of his three pieces of reading material were ruined. What survived? A Bible. With the cell still dripping around him, he began to read.

In the hours that slowly tumbled past, this noisy, perpetually loud man experienced something he’d never really known: quiet.

Tears filled his eyes, dried and returned again with every new story from the New Testament. He was making new deals then, this time with heaven. “I knew that God loved me, and I promised I would preach his gospel for the rest of my life, even if it meant from prison.”

The very next day, the warden visited and announced that a specific regulation prohibited them from keeping him in isolation any longer. He was overjoyed to return to the prison's general population.

In those days of relative freedom, the scriptures came alive to him. “It was like a television,” Johnson said. “It was so clear. I think if you’re reading the Bible and not receiving revelation, you’re not paying attention. I remember that the Bible had me and prison didn’t matter anymore.”

To Johnson's surprise, because of a dispute over jurisdiction on his original charges, he was released early and fully reinstated back into the military.

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