One recent afternoon in his south side office on Taft Street, Michael Johnson described how, two decades before, he was terrorized by an outrageously racist crime as a college athlete in Minnesota.
The incident was so egregious it made national headlines, but Johnson told me he had never spoken publicly of his role as victim.
Johnson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, has become a widely respected community leader during his four years in Madison and is at the epicenter of efforts to serve the city’s children.
Readers of The Capital Times know we sparked a flood of attention in December with our cover story by the Rev. Alex Gee, pastor of Fountain of Life Covenant Church, headlined “Justified Anger” — his deeply personal experiences about the city’s racial divide.
Our cover story this week, in print and online Wednesday, was written by Johnson, who grew up in Chicago public housing he says was infested by gangs, drugs and prostitution before he moved on to attend a small, almost all-white Minnesota college where the crime occurred.
Going forward, the Cap Times plans to delve deeply into four major racial themes that the African-American community has helped us identify. They focus on the subjects of education, incarceration, employment, and what we see as a profound social separation between races in everyday Madison life.
We have received much support for our direction, but the loudest criticisms of it are twofold: that our bright spotlight might exacerbate white flight from the city, and that we need to move on to strategies and solutions because race problems in Madison have been sufficiently noted.
Given that, why would we devote another cover story to a topic like Michael Johnson’s personal odyssey?
Because we have promised two things that will distinguish this Cap Times project from standard newspaper endeavors. One is that we will leverage our strengths as a digital-first media entity to make our work dynamic and interactive.
The other, more important element is a promise that our path will be most influenced by the voices, experiences, and views of African-Americans, not white politicians, journalists, nonprofit leaders or academics.
So, consistent with that pledge and admiring Johnson’s decision to share such a scarring memory, we chose to highlight his story and his prescriptions for Madison. Given what he’s endured and who he’s become, we think they’re worthy of our full attention.