John Johnson: former Black Panther, Prison Inmate

Story of John Johnson

former Black Panther, Prison Inmate

Deseret News – August 5, 2014


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.

He was, however, still associating with the influences of his old life. “I dealt with drug dealers and thugs,” Johnson said as he described the challenges of distancing himself from his past. He wanted to right the wrongs in his life. In the racial chaos of the time, that meant making a decision that could bring him back to prison forever.

It was that constant struggle that led Johnson to hold a gun to a sleeping officer’s head.

He finished his walk home that night crying out for relief. “I prayed for a miracle. I told God I needed someone to talk to.”

The next morning, before he’d slept, a knock at the door startled him. With his past and with his Rolodex of associates, it could have been anyone.

It wasn’t just anyone — it was Mormon missionaries.

Standing at his door were Elders Lindsey and Heath from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Johnson invited them in and showered them with questions about prophets, revelation and the Book of Mormon. “When they asked me to read the promise in Moroni 10, I knew before I was even finished that this is what God wanted me to do.”

Nearly two years later, after needing more than the usual number of interviews and approvals, John Johnson entered the waters of baptism. His first calling was as a stake missionary, and since then he’s re-entered baptismal fonts more than 30 times all around the country to perform the ordinance for others he’s introduced to the gospel.

“I’m trying to be humble,” Johnson laughed near the end of our discussion, “but I also want to tell the truth. I’ve fought wars around the world during my military career and I’ve given away more of those small Books of Mormon than I can count and I’ve talked to thousands about my beliefs. How can I not? Just look at my life without the gospel and now with it. Just look!”

Today, Johnson is a member of the high council in the New Orleans Louisiana Stake with, not surprisingly, responsibility for missionary work. But his influence doesn’t stop there.

Johnson is also heavily involved in the community. He serves on the board of a large interfaith coalition in New Orleans, works with the area Boy Scouts of America and serves as a coordinator for a prison “re-entry program” that helps inmates transition to society and find friends and work, just to name a few.

But none of those labors of love match his most important calling as a member missionary. “I have a responsibility to share what I know,” Johnson said. “The Restoration is real. I know that God does live and he does answer prayers. It’s true.”

He’s right. God answers prayers.

Thirty years ago, John Johnson nearly took a life.

Instead, hours later, he found his.