Volume 4 Number 9
There for the Young Black Male
01 October 1991

Through creating a meaningful avenue of self-expression, Johnson says, teenagers learn how to direct themselves; and one of the most important goals of BTA is to restore young Black men's sense of a positive self-image.

Black men are in crisis, and while the nation studies the problem, Atlanta high-school teacher Ed Johnson is doing something about it, and on no small scale. He is Executive Advisor to Black Teens for Advancement (BTA), an organization of about 2,000 Black male high-school students - any number of whom is capable of starting a riot, Johnson once said. In this role, he supports them as they struggle to grow up without falling prey to violence, drugs and crime.

Johnson, a social-studies teacher at Benjamin E Mays High School in Atlanta, is no stranger to struggle. His mother died when he was only eight, and he says that his father, who was seldom around, only served as a disciplinarian. As a result Johnson spent his early years as a street child, unloved and unwanted. He was 17 when he fathered his first child.

It's hard to believe that this soft-spoken, sensitive man, now 62, who can talk of his childhood with a smiling face, once had to eat out of trash cans to survive.

So what made the difference in his life? `I had somebody for me,' Johnson says, meaning his favourite aunt. But the story of his turnaround is hers too. Until he was about 11, he says, no one had ever treated him like a person. Then one day, in a fit of anger, his aunt gave him a vicious beating. As she cleaned his wounds she finally began to see him as a human being, loving him, guiding him and most importantly leading him to church where he found the spiritual inspiration that continues to guide his life.

Like Ed Johnson, some of the young men of BTA come from troubled backgrounds. Some have family-linked problems, others have been mixed up with violence and drugs.

It was the kids themselves who began BTA in 1989, wanting to stop the violence amongst high-school rivals. The momentum of a few caught the attention of many. Before long word spread and hundreds of students, including some gang members and drug dealers, got involved. They come from all socio-economic backgrounds - housing projects and comfortable middleclass homes - and somehow it works.

In 1990 BTA's work won a citation from the state governor and the annual award for outstanding service to the community from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples.

The kids picked Johnson to be their only adult advisor because they feel an affinity with him. And he identifies with them. But serving as Executive Advisor to BTA is not always easy. He must divide his time between his family, career, church responsibilities and the kids of BTA. It's a difficult task for both him and his wife of 34 years, Mildred.

Part of Johnson's reason for wanting to help the kids is simply that `when you see good you want to encourage it'. But he is finding that people sometimes question his motives. That can be painful and discouraging. He keeps on going `simply for the love of the children'.

Love is not always enough. Some BTA members, unprepared to do the work it takes to continue moving in a positive direction, fall by the wayside. Some come back and continue the struggle. They're all God's children to Ed Johnson. So there's always room in his heart for them, and he makes time for them.

The church is the best place to see him in action. It has been the instrumental force in shaping who and what he is. Our first meeting was at Beulah Baptist Church in south-west Atlanta, where he serves as Deacon and wears many other hats. At about 9 am he taught Sunday school for teenaged boys, some of whom are members of BTA. Then we were off for a flurry of other activities. `The church is my family,' says Johnson. Watching him sing in the choir, you can see him shine with love and sincerity.

Johnson is a man of great feeling. He is deeply committed to the children of the world, his own family and to God. When he speaks on any of these subjects he absolutely beams with joy.

Ed Johnson's love for children appears to be a family affair. Mildred, who is currently a media specialist for the Atlanta public schools, has worked with children for nearly 40 years. She deals with students in kindergarten through fifth grade at Brandon Elementary School in north-west Atlanta. The Johnsons have three children of their own and seven grandchildren ranging from 19 months to 22 years old.

Through creating a meaningful avenue of self-expression, Johnson says, teenagers learn how to direct themselves; and one of the most important goals of BTA is to restore young Black men's sense of a positive self-image. As advisor to BTA he does not make decisions for them, he helps them make decisions for themselves. Is that a tall order? Yes, says Johnson, but he and the kids are definitely up to the task.

New chapters
BTA has already established chapters in Keysville and Saint Simon Island in Georgia, Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Richmond and Norfolk, Virginia. Members are now preparing to make presentations in Connecticut, New York and California - three states plagued with a high rate of young Black male homicides. In Atlanta, BTA is planning a 'Metro-wide Spring Offensive' which will include about 5,000 young Black males. On top of all that, they are working to secure a permanent home for their organization.

So where do they get the energy and motivation? `Through God,' says Johnson. His own role is to try to do for the kids what others have done for him - guide them as they walk, stumble and sometimes fall on the road from childhood to adulthood. `I refuse to be an armchair philosopher who will only sit and talk about the problem,' he says.