by aisha elbgal
The unjust murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and numerous other innocent black people at the hands of police sparked nationwide protests demanding justice for these victims of police violence. Over the course of these few months, however, we’ve witnessed the movement slowly lose momentum as people become unmotivated with the lack of action and change being made. As a youth of color living in Oakland, I know that in order for this movement to truly be successful, we have to learn from those who fought to bring change to our city in the past. I spoke with Rose Johnson, a longtime Oakland resident who worked closely with members of the Black Panther Party in the past, about advice and knowledge she wants to pass on to the next generation of leaders and activists.
Rose Johnson, 73, was born and raised in Louisiana and moved to Oakland, California in 1959 when she was in the sixth grade. Rose has been an outspoken activist for over 50 years, working alongside members of the Black Panther Party to advocate for social change in Oakland.
How did your upbringing contribute to your activism?
RJ: It’s years of going through racism and the interactions [I had] with the Ku Klux Klan when I was younger. It felt like I just needed to be more active in trying to get equality for us. It was just horrible and something I thought I might want to be a part of- not fix because as you know, it’s still not fixed. It takes a long time obviously. When I was really younger and I was [in middle school] our schools were closed a lot because the [Ku Klux Klan] would come and they would disfigure our schools.
They would write all over [the walls], break the windows, write on it like “n***** go back to Africa”. They would be riding around the area on horseback and our parents would keep us home. The school would close, of course, maybe sometimes weeks at a time. This was in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. We moved from Louisiana to Arkansas. It was [always] just a hard time.
I’ve seen a friend of mine knocked out in a ditch when we were running home from school one day and we heard that he had gotten killed. We were just kids. And that was hard. It’s just hard to understand why people hated us so much that they would do that to these little children. It just stemmed from growing up in the South and seeing the treatment our families [had gone] through. Just [witnessing] that negativity as a child just [forces] you to take it on [to] try to make it better. You try to figure it out and work it out.
There weren’t a lot of whites in my neighborhood, but those that were [such as] the store owners, restaurant owners, people at the gas stations- you would see [a lot of] racism at the time. It just makes you want to be part of the solution somewhere to get something done. During [that] time, Martin Luther King Jr was killed [and] it was hard to see the activists; those that were trying to fight for equality and how they were killed and how they were treated.
First, I just want to say I’m really sorry that you had to experience that. I feel like that’s something that nobody should have to go through. I really admire your strength in being able to rise above that and understand that there is change that needs to be made.
So moving on to the next question, did your personal views change when you joined the Black Panther Party?
RJ: I actually was just associated with the Black Panther Party, [through] my brother and friends. I wasn’t an active member, but I was always around. So I was just doing things that [I] needed to do to help with what was going on in the Party, like the publications and the tutoring that they did at Grove street for young people. I met Bobby Seale and Huey Newton because they started on 55th and Grove and they would come around in the community and they would be assisting the community with different things like cutting their lawns to make [the neighborhoods] look better for those that weren’t able to do that.
They came over to cut our grass and it was very hot, so I went out to give them some lemonade and sandwiches and that’s how I met them and later on we just started talking. They were the ones that started [the Black Panther Party] and my brothers were able to go to Merritt College and [were able to] be a part of that program. They had started a breakfast program as well [as] a tutoring program for young people and I enjoyed being a part of that.
Next question, what is one change that the Black Panther Party brought to Oakland that is still present today?
RJ: Well, it would have been the Head Start food program, but so much has happened since Trump’s been in office I’m not even sure if that’s still a part because I haven’t heard about that. The kids used to get breakfast in the morning sometimes before they go to school, but I think other people took credit for that.
We were able to do some things. I worked with a few Panthers and we were able to do some stuff like relocation in the community. They go and fight for people that were struggling like in areas where the housing relocation was really bad for African American people. They couldn’t move into certain places, the rent was so high and they would charge you more than they would charge other tenants. So we were able to do some things like that. Then we started a food program. And I think a lot of the programs today stemmed from that start. I think some of the things they did like that were able to still be in effect, but [they] aren’t necessarily given the credit.
Yeah. I feel I’ve really noticed that throughout our history, a lot of people have trouble with, like, crediting the Black Panther Party for anything that is positive.
RJ: Oh yeah, they [were] like trying to get rid of the fact they were even here.
I’m thinking of the Black Lives Matter movement today. Over the years since the death of Trayvon Martin, we’ve seen protests sort of rising and then they ultimately die out like they lose- the public loses interest. Does this worry you?
RJ: You know, I just have to really be honest with you, after being around and dealing with so much that has come up and died out, it doesn’t necessarily worry me because regardless of whether they die out or not, the idea of the stuff is still there because it can’t die out completely. Just bringing it up, just forming it and just starting it had some kind of impact. So I just have to have faith, and my biggest faith is in God.
To share with you the truth, we have come a mighty, mighty, mighty long way and it doesn’t look like we’ve come anywhere. But you have to sit with it on a personal level too, the fact that so many things are working and have been implemented there’s just so much racism- and it’s systemic racism. We’re not dealing with the fact that one or two people are being racist. It’s the whole system that’s racist against African Americans.
So what are some similarities and differences between this movement and previous movements?
RJ: The difference between this and the previous movements is that there are a lot more other cultures that are in this movement [and] are supporting this movement, although there were whites during the civil rights movement. But there was not as many. Today you see everybody.
We’re a melting pot. The current cultures that the melting pot, a lot of people here from different places and a lot of them are brown people. So I do think it affects [the movement]. This system is so systematically racist until it affects all people of color. And we’re seeing more of that [now], I think, than before.
And I’m dealing with the fact that it’s just the support that you feel and it’s hard because you don’t really know who’s who! I don’t really know who is who. You laugh and smile in my face and you really aren’t who you’re showing up to be. And I have to deal with whatever my instincts are or my feelings about that. And it’s just too hard to go and try to read out who I think is or isn’t.
I just think it takes a lot of faith and continued prayer. And ask God to just have mercy on the whole world because we all are in a really bad place.
You mentioned the differences, but what are like some similarities that you see?
RJ: You know, the only similarity I see is that we are all somebody. And people don’t take that into consideration, we’re all of the same. Regardless of the color of your skin- beneath the color of your skin, there’s nothing different about any of us. That’s the similarity we have. And before anything else can happen, before everything could move on, we have to realize that everybody is somebody.
What is one improvement that you think should be made for the Black Lives Matter movement to be successful?
RJ: For more people to realize that we need to get out there and do more. This is a hard time to really elaborate on dealing with it because of [Covid-19], It’s hard to move about and get stuff done. Whenever you’re having a movement there has to be action. There has to be conversation. And you can’t really do that as well today because of Covid-19. I can’t really grasp it; I just really think we have to look at every single thing going on in this world today and just kind of realize that it’s not just Black Lives Matter- there’s so much other stuff that’s going on. The hindrance that would keep something from being as progressive as it needs to be because of the limitations.
And what do you hope will be a lasting impact of the Black Lives Matter movement?
RJ: That the conversation was started. That the Black Lives Matter [movement] will last and grow and that people will actually get it, what that really means. Because once you say “Black Lives Matter” to certain people then they’ll share with you that all lives matter. When that explanation is given, that people will grasp it and realize that the only reason “Black Lives Matter” is a quote that’s here is because it doesn’t seem to be that black lives matter because of the brutality from the police, the brutality from the system, the racism, the communities that we have to live in; all of those things [don’t] really show that black lives matter. Because we’re treated like we’re not even human. So when you say all lives matter, I agree with you. All lives do matter. But do you recognize and agree with the fact that black lives matter TOO then it has to be separate but equal.
So what advice do you have for those who are starting to feel discouraged by the pace of the Black Lives Matter movement progress?
RJ: Wow. The system is so messed up that it’s hard to deal with the pace. Because you’re pushed back. You move a step forward and you’re pushed back. That’s why I say the most important thing is to keep moving forward to the best of your ability.
That was a beautiful answer. Thank you.
RJ: You’re welcome.