Op-Ed: Thoughts About Black History Month

Jim Johnson as a young man. (we-ha.com file photo)

Thoughts about Black History Month from a West Hartford native.

By James A. Johnson

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.” – Congressman John Lewis, from the book, A Way out of No Way, by Senator Raphael G. Warnock, South Carolina.

Race – the biological distinction. Race – the durable singular social preoccupation of the United States throughout its history. Race – the constitutional Continental Divide.

The Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln in 1863 freed African-Americans. Yet in the 21st century, Blacks in America are not truly free. What the white South lost on the battlefields of the Civil War and during Reconstruction, it would reclaim in the 19th and early 20th Century. Southern whites passed laws, employed terror, intimidation and violence to keep Blacks from progressing.

Black History Month is a bittersweet – sometimes cynical – celebration. For example, it has been written that Jimmy Johnson was the first African-American to hold the coveted title of Captain of Conard H.S. Basketball Team. My election by teammates was based on merit and leadership qualities. With the exception of the well-connected James A. Johnson, Sr. no other African-American could obtain a mortgage for a home in West Hartford because of racism. Of course, it is nice to be honored and remembered for my basketball skill and leadership qualities. But, being honored for the barrier I broke makes the persons who set the barrier an integral part to the story. This is White history – not Black History.

Courtesy of Jim Johnson

This essay is a short story of a people denied the basic rights of citizenship in the land of their birth. It is a story of a people largely invisible in the public’s mind and consciousness. It is a story of a people stamped as inferior based on race and living largely in separate worlds. It is a story of struggle and that struggle persists.

Persistent Struggle

The following are excerpts from various sources that reflect the persistent struggle of African Americans to this very day:

“The black skin you got from me will force you to waste a king-size slice of your lifetime climbing invisible barriers, imaging other barriers where none exist, fending off affronts – real and imagined – to your dignity, proving that you are human, disproving that you are inferior, living down stereotypes, protesting injustice, choking down helpless rage, waiting for freedom, and adjusting to the knowledge that you will still be waiting when you die.” – Bob Teague, Letters to A Black Boy (NY: Lancer Book, 1969, P.19

“I am invisible, understanding, simply because people refuse to see me…. When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.” – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (NY: Vintage Books, Feb. 1972), P. 3

“Racism is so integral a part of American life that no matter what blacks do to better their lot they are doomed to fail as long as the majority of whites do not see that their own well-being is threatened by the inferior status of blacks. Bell calls on blacks to face up to the unhappy truth and abandon the misleading vision of “we shall overcome.” Only then will blacks, and those whites who join them, be in a position to create viable strategies to alleviate the burdens of racism.”  – Harvard Professor Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well – The Permanence of Racism, 1992

“Black people are the magical faces at the bottom of society’s well. Even the poorest whites, those who must live their lives only a few levels above, gain their self-esteem by gazing down on us. Surely, they must know that their deliverance depends on letting down their ropes. Only by working together is escape possible. Over time, many reach out, but most simply watch, mesmerized into maintain their unspoken commitment to keeping us where we are, at whatever cost to them or to us.” – Harvard Professor Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well – The Permanence of Racism, 1992

“In a sobering moment, I realized that my success (and that of many people of color) stems from our ability to normalize daily racism. Indeed, our survival as healthy adults depends on it, even if – or perhaps because – it means denying the resulting pain. Like others, I had become a master of wearing a mask.”

“I thought I never personally experienced racism. Then I realized I just normalized it.” –Njeri Rutledge, Harvard Law School alum – USA Today, Voices, Sept 15, 2020.

To mention slavery in 2024 seems ludicrous. But the effects of slavery refuse to fade together with deeply embedded personal attitudes and institutional racism. Despite undeniable progress no African American is insulated from incidents of racial discrimination. Even today the Confederate monuments and Confederate flags in the South of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and others represent white supremacy. These statutes are not static symbols but represent a system of beliefs and denial of black racial progress.

Few whites are able to identify with African Americans as a group because we live in separate worlds socially. Even my Conard High School classmates would be surprised to learn of the racism I have encountered in my personal and professional journey. However, because I was well received, popular, and able to participate in all phases of social life at Sedgwick and Conard, being the only African American in a college classroom, law department, or law firm never phased me. In fact, I have always been able to move with facility in the white world in comparison with my own people.

As an interesting aside, many whites will declare: “I am not prejudiced.”; “I never mistreated a minority person.” These statements could very well be true. However, you are the vicarious beneficiary of the oppression that has been bestowed upon African Americans for decades. Simply put, you have an advantage – you are privileged. Yes, white people do have problems and face barriers, but systemic racism is not one of them. Therefore, you have a moral obligation to promote fundamental fairness or to correct a racial wrong or problem within your physical presence, job, profession or organization.


Any discussion by this writer about Black History requires a disclosure of my early Jewish experience. For the first 12 years of my life I lived in a Jewish neighborhood. All of my intimate friends were Jewish namely: Morton Kahan (Weaver), Fred Dressler (Weaver), Dave Sasportas (Hall), Howard Hochman (Conard), Harvey Glassman (Weaver), Nancy Shapiro Berman (Conard), Marilyn Kravitz Slovitt (Conard), and others too numerous to mention. When the grammar school bell rang at 3 p.m. all the Catholic boys went to Catechism class. The Jewish boys went to Hebrew School. Here I was sitting on a bench with my classmates. The Rabbi didn’t even blink or say anything. I also had a paid job (25 cents) for putting out the lights in the synagogue on certain holidays. Lenny Wasserman, later known as Mr. Leonard Wasserman, Conard High School teacher, was our family paperboy and Nancy Shapiro Berman’s too. Today, Morton Kahan is still practicing outstanding medicine in Boston, Massachusetts and Fred Dressler and Dave Sasportas are basically retired businessmen. We constantly stay in touch. My Jewish experience continued when I was studying in The Cradle of Intellectual America in Boston. In my opinion, as a group Jewish people understand and have empathy for the plight of African Americans because they have been discriminated against for centuries. Jews should be admired for their accomplishments in the face of brutal discrimination.

On Oct. 19, 2023, Samantha Woll, the president of a Detroit Synagogue, was found stabbed to death outside her home. The investigation remains ongoing at this writing.

For the next 20+ years I lived in the house below and my close friends were primarily gentile. Here comes Doug Carrier, Bill Butler, Walter Jennings, Susan Allen, Betsy Andrews Gilreath, Thomas Gill, Ray “Slugger” Dunn, Paul Eschholtz, Richard McRory, Sam Smith Elio, Duncan Crowther, Jim Hansen, and Jim Forden. The location where I and my friends lived: Sunset Farm, Mountain Terrace Roadd, High Farms, Stoner Drive, and Hunter Drive. It is these experiences and friends that helped to shape my character, personality and intellectual prowess.

Antisemitism has persisted for centuries. But, today it is delivered online spreading hate worldwide. It is a false conspiracy theory that Jews control the banks, the media, and the government. Antisemitism comes from white supremacist, white national groups and some blacks like Kanye West posting on social media. A current wave of antisemitism was the 11 worshippers killed in an attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Prejudice can be contagious that leads to discrimination. We cannot let this continue because it is a threat to democracy. It is the duty of all people to speak out and make it clear that antisemitism is unacceptable. This duty also applies to city, state and the Federal Government because it is their duty to protect its citizens. Even today the worldwide hate toward the Jewish faith continues evidenced by the Israel-Hamas War and the increase of hate crimes in the United States.

In December 2023, hundreds of U.S. synagogues and Jewish organizations across the U.S. were targeted by emailed bomb threats according to law enforcement officials and a nonprofit that tracks the security of Jewish communities.

“Get Trump”

The book, Get Trump, by Alan Dershowitz, Professor Emeritus of Harvard Law School published in April 2023 is a critique of the dangerous measures that may create precedents that will be used by both parties of the political spectrum. He is not a Trump defender. In his own words, “the premise of this book is that the abridgement of rights being undertaken in an effort to stop Trump from running is more dangerous and potentially more enduring than the reelection of Trump would be.”

In my opinion, Dershowitz has high moral character and is an intellectual heavyweight. It is the threat to civil liberties, due process, free speech, attorney-client relationship, our Constitution, and the rule of law that he wants to protect. The book is an essential read for all Americans.

Affirmative Action

One of the most difficult and divisive social problems of our time is how to promote equal opportunity for minorities without engaging in reverse discrimination. Most Americans realize the blatant discrimination of minority groups and subscribe to the broad objective of moving minorities into the mainstream of American life. The problem is how to achieve that objective. In higher education and employment affirmative action and preferential treatment in using race to determine inclusion and exclusion involves getting someone in and keeping somebody out. Is this reverse discrimination? Possibly. Or, is it a way to eliminate the barriers of racial discrimination to bring about equality of opportunity that only affects a very small number of white applicants.

On June 29, 2023 the U.S. Supreme Court in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University & University of North Carolina effectively eliminated the use of affirmative action in college admissions. The Court’s decision disregards a four-decade precedent that allows colleges and universities to broadly consider applicants’ race in their admissions process.

Thurgood Marshall, America’s first Black Supreme Court Justice, said: “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our boot straps. We got here because somebody – a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns – bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”  In truth, this is my story without the nuns or boots. ☺️ I grew up in an upper-upper middle-class town and neighborhood wearing penny loafers, oxford cloth button-down shirts, Shetland wool sweaters, and was voted Best Dressed at Sedgwick and Conard. I was a star and that provided me with a high level of self-esteem. A star is not something that flashes through the sky. That is called a comet or meteor. The kind of star I am referring to is fixed, permanent, and gives off a steady glow. This is the Jimmy Johnson story the lodestar of Conard basketball that has not diminished after all these years.

Johnson family home. Courtesy of James Johnson 

At this point the reader might be asking: How did you navigate the barriers imposed by law, custom, and society. The answer is that I had educated parents, friends, and teachers together with growing up in the nurturing environment of West Hartford.

In closing, I want to thank my teachers, classmates and friends. Most of all I thank my wonderful parents and three sisters: Janice, Sandra, and Donna. To West Hartford residents who I grew up with keep one house light on so I will know that you are home. I am coming to visit. 

About the Author:

James A. Johnson is a native of West Hartford, a Sedgwick and Conard alum and a former captain of the basketball team. Today he is an accomplished trial lawyer concentrating in serious personal injury, sports and entertainment law, insurance coverage under the Commercial General Liability (CGL) policy, and federal criminal defense. Jim also assists lawyers as co-counsel in litigation and is an active member of the Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas, and Federal Court Bars. He can be reached at www.JamesAJohnsonEsq.com

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