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June 16, 2024

Author John Howard Griffin, who posed as a Black man for his seminal book on southern racism,"Black Like Me," was born in 1920.

Special: Interview with Bob Johnson

POSTED: November 18, 2016, 2:00 pm

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“In my opinion, for far too long, African Americans have failed to draw upon and exercise our historically unified voting clout and bloc to become “the balance of power” between the two parties before deciding to support or oppose either party based solely on our unique and special interests.”

Bob Johnson is arguably the most prolific Black businessman of the 20th century. The founder and former chairman of Black Entertainment Television (BET), and now CEO of The RLJ Companies, has left a huge mark on commerce and economic development in this country. His awareness is not limited to the board room as Johnson has significant experience on Capitol Hill and is uniquely aware of the levers of governmental power and how they can be exercised to the benefit of the African-American community. Possessing a Master’s degree in public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, he served as the director of communications in the Washington office of the National Urban League, as press secretary for former Congressman Walter Fauntroy and vice president for government relations at the National Cable and Television Association in the nation’s capital. This vast experience well equipped Bob Johnson to launch BET in 1980 and turn it into the first Black-owned company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1991.

Following the recent election of Donald Trump as the nation’s 45th president, Johnson shared his thoughts on what this election means for African-Americans and more importantly, what he believes Blacks must do to leverage our political capital. It’s not the first-time Johnson has waded into political waters. In 2008, he weighed in on that presidential election and caught some flak for comments he made regarding Barack Obama for which he personally apologized. This year though, he has offered a critique that is more global in nature and is based upon an often-forgotten book, former Congressman William Clay’s tome “Just Permanent Interests” that was aimed at giving direction to Blacks on Capitol Hill in the early days of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Recognizing the deep anguish felt by many Blacks over the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, Johnson channeled Clay in challenging Black voters to see beyond the results of Election Day. In his formal statement, Johnson advised, “We must realize that this is not the last election in America and that elections at every level of government - federal, state and local – will continue to take place. Our job now is to continue to mobilize in these elections whenever and wherever they occur. We should, as before, educate and inform our voting community about the critical social and economic issues that impact our families, our community, and this nation.”

By referencing former Congressman William Clay in the context of the presidential election, Johnson is resurrecting a theory of political engagement that Clay championed. The Missouri lawmaker firmly believed that African-Americans are better served if we adopt a posture of “No permanent friends. No permanent enemies. Just permanent interests” that actually aligns with the voices of millennial voters who are less inclined to invest confidence in institutions or align with a political party. “Finally, and this is most critical,” Johnson suggested, “it is time for Black American voters to return to a political ideology and engagement strategy with the two-party system that was proposed to us almost 45 years ago, at the founding of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Why shouldn’t we, as Black voters, reject the notion that we are locked into one party which undoubtedly limits and dilutes our voting power? We should, instead, use the power of our vote to support and elect whichever party that best serves our interests.”

It is an analysis that I think is necessary and a point-of-view that I share, and is why I personally reached out to Bob Johnson to probe his thoughts a little deeper. He granted me an interview and our discussion is condensed below.

Fields: Thank you Mr. Johnson for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with me. I became intrigued by your perspective on this election when I read your press release and when I saw that you referenced former Congressman William Clay’s book my interest really piqued. What is your general assessment of where this nation where African-Americans stand after this election?

Johnson: Well thank you for reaching out Walter. Our nation is very divided; divided on a geopolitical level and across a number of concerns, such as trade, jobs, and the changing nature of the economy. People are concerned about their ability to provide for their families. People are fighting for their own turf. We have to come together and realize that politics is not a zero-sum game. Black Americans will be in the wrong political position if we forever lock ourselves into one of the two political parties.

Fields: That’s been an issue that has been festering for some time. Would you care to elaborate?

Johnson: Yes, well, we have to look at ourselves as a political force. We cannot vote blindly for one political party without checking out what the other has to offer. Right now, we have one political party with the attitude “Let’s keep giving Black folks stuff and they won’t leave” while the other says “Let’s ignore them because we’re never going to get their support anyway.”

Fields: If that is the case, and I agree, how do we move beyond the “status quo” of partisanship? How do we embrace a new paradigm?

Johnson: Leadership. We need leadership. Somebody has to take the leadership mantle and take this to the forefront of the thinking in our community. Political confrontation, peaceful confrontation is necessary. Still, those who wish to be leaders and call themselves leaders have to take a different approach. Are we going to be better off waiting 4 years, ignoring Republicans, or should we lay out our own manifesto?

Fields: What are the major impediments to economic mobility for African-Americans?

Johnson: We don’t have the leadership focus on taking on the vision and ideology that William Clay had. No permanent friends. No permanent enemies. Just permanent interests. We view Black leadership as party leadership. We have lost the belief that we can truly impact power. We can be the balance of power in Congress, in the House and Senate, in state and local government. Our engagement doesn’t just have to be at the presidential level.

Fields: What should be our priority following this election?

Johnson: We have to return to William Clay’s theme. We have to look at the power structure in America. We need to go to the Trump administration and state “Here are our interests. Now, how do you propose to address them?” Then we should support those things that are in our favor. We also have to get over this thing if an African-American approaches the Trump administration, the person is charged with heresy. Our nation’s corporations are at the table, asking for what they need. Nobody is charging them with selling out. We have to approach the power structure. When you want something done, you approach power. If you just spend the next 4 years complaining, you will have ignored the advice of Bill Clay.

Fields: What else should we be considering at this time?

Johnson: Issue wise, definitely global trade. We also need to take note of the rising influence of Hispanics in society, the prevalence of low-wage jobs and the technology revolution. We also have to be aware that we are living in a fractured society. White Democrats, Hispanic voters, the LGBQT community, increasingly the Muslim community are not signing up to help Black folks. They are leveraging their votes. That’s what they do. What do we do? We are pawns in the game.

Fields: Millennial voters have been the subject of much talk during this election, with many expressing dissatisfaction with the political process. What advice do you have for Black millennials?

Johnson: First, get educated about your own self-interest. If you don’t believe in institutions, then you need to find out what you as an individual need to do to make your life better. It’s what Dr. King meant when he referenced being a street sweeper but sweeping streets even as Michelangelo painted. He was saying become the best in whatever you want to do. Young people must also understand that we live in a capitalist-democratic society and that votes carry weight. The vote is the most powerful instrument an individual possesses in America. Money or bullets won’t carry the day. Begging for a handout won’t carry the day. You can protest all day long but it’s for naught is you don’t vote. You can have all the money in the world but that doesn’t matter because people can vote against your interest.

Fields: Any final thoughts?

Johnson: The conflict for access to benefits and opportunities is not a zero-sum game. You can’t just sit on the sidelines. You have to get in the game, get involved, vote and use your power.

Fields: Thank you for your time Mr. Johnson. We appreciate you sharing your thoughts with our readers.

Johnson: Thank you Walter.

Photo Credit: Melissa Golden

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