Late NAACP leader strove for justice on all issues

  • Rogers Johnson (right) stands with Gov. Chris Sununu (second from right), Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Lahey (left) and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald on Dec. 14, 2017 in Concord, as MacDonald describes a new civil rights unit being added to his office. AP file

Concord Monitor
Published: 11/15/2020 7:24:58 PM
Modified: 11/15/2020 7:24:56 PM

Rogers Johnson, the Seacoast NAACP leader and former state representative who chaired the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion, died Thursday at the age of 62.

To the end, Johnson was active as a statewide voice for African Americans, speaking to the Monitor as recently as two months ago. His outlook was unique, advocating for equal justice under the law while pushing back against the idea that racism was systemic in the country’s police forces.

Sen. Dave Watters, a Democrat from Dover, knew Johnson for 20 years and the two became close friends.

“Terrible sadness and a devastating loss,” Watters said Friday. “He was a good friend, and we worked together for years and years on the Seacoast NAACP. He was a tireless worker for civil rights and transparency.”

Watters remembered his friend’s visit to Dover High School this past summer, when Johnson attended a Black Lives Matter rally to calm the rising tension. Previously, two students had written lyrics about the KKK killing Black people, singing the words to a version of Jingle Bells as part of their history assignment.

Watters posted a photo to Twitter of Johnson during his speech to the students.

“He spoke beautifully,” Watters said. “He had an interesting relationship with the students. They felt they had someone to talk to about racial name-calling and racial tension and racial injustice.”

Hearing supportive talk from a Black person who was also a Republican created a novel scenario, which is what Johnson strove for all along.

“He had a strong insistence on and an understanding of statistical evidence,” Watters said. “He wanted to see where the injustice was, and that made such a good foundation for a change in the government.”

Johnson was the chairman of Gov. Chris Sununu’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion. He was a member of the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency, which was created as the United States reacted to police violence against Black people following the death of George Floyd. He spoke his mind and hoped to inform others.

Recommendations from the commission on how New Hampshire can improve its police force bear his fingerprints.

“Legislation will have to enact more of the report because of him,” Watters said. “It’s the knowledge raised by him and his insistence on the facts to make it real to people on what racial prejudice is doing to its citizens.”

Johnson grew up in Rye, in Westchester County, near New York City. He was a Black kid living in the modest part of town, friendly with white kids, some of whom lived in the mansions Rye is known for. He was a star high school athlete.

“No racial discrimination,” Johnson told the Monitor in June. “We played at everyone’s house, pool hopping in each neighborhood. We went to Rye Playland and the beach and Yankee Stadium. No one bothered anyone. It was magnificent.”

He was a consultant and worked in insurance before a void took hold, nudging him into public service to ensure that African Americans got a fair shake. He was a state representative from 2001 to 2006, became the first Black person in state history selected as House majority whip, served on the House Finance Committee and was given the Black America’s Political Action Committee Leaders of Tomorrow Award in 2004.

Johnson also worked at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., selected by President George W. Bush.

He returned to the Granite State in 2009 and as racial unrest took hold of the nation this year, he was once again cast into a leadership role. While he never totally accepted the view that racism is running rampant in the country’s police forces — he said he preferred to judge the incidents on a case-by-case basis — Johnson empathized with the anger Black people felt. He felt it after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, he said, but he believed bloodshed solved nothing.

“Violence obscures the message,” Johnson said in June. “And you want a message that Black people are concerned about just driving down the road and getting pulled over. You never know what’s going to happen.”

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