2020 was a tumultuous year. The nation experienced a racial justice reckoning in the wake of the deaths of Breanna Taylor, George Floyd and other people of color at the hands of police officers.  

Connecting Point’s Zydalis Bauer spoke with Ronn Johnson of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield about how the legacy of Dr. King’s life and work has impacted the events of the past year.  Johnson also reacted to the recent arson at the Martin Luther King Jr. Presbyterian Church in Springfield. 

Read the full transcript

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: 2020 was a tumultuous year, which brought a national reckoning on racial justice in the wake of the deaths of Brianna Taylor, George Floyd and others.

I spoke with Ronn Johnson of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield about how the legacy of Dr. King’s life and work has impacted the events of the past year. I began by asking him his reaction to the recent arson at the Martin Luther King Jr. Presbyterian Church in Springfield.

Ronn Johnson, MLK Family Services: Well, when I got that call at 5:30 in the morning that there was a fire on the campus here, I was perplexed and very afraid for what it could be, whether it was arson or whether there was perhaps a homeless person that was maybe sleeping in the building and trying to stay warm, just didn’t know.

And once arrived here, I was clearly aware that it was a really bad fire.The fire officials did indicate that it was possible arson, but it really traumatized the community, traumatized all the staff. And certainly the members of the church were traumatized to have their place of worship, to be decimated and to know that it was intentionally set really just added heartache to injury.

Zydalis Bauer: And unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that this has happened. Back in 2008, the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield was also burned down to the ground after the election of Barack Obama.

Did this latest act sort of reopen old wounds in the community?

Ronn Johnson: It absolutely did. Because we understood that we were traumatized by that event and the circumstances under which it happened, to know that that was intentionally set.

And it did bring back the frame of reference that we all had as a community for the hatred that exists in the hearts of certain people as it relates to places of worship where they know there’s a gathering of black folks.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, 2020 was an extremely turbulent year. 2021 has started off also a little bit rocky. What would Dr. King say about this past year?

Ronn Johnson, MLK Family Services: Justice delayed is justice denied.

He would encourage us to all consider finding ways that we can get connected to make a difference in our communities. He said that we all have the ability to do something to be of service to others. So, he’d be talking about reconciliation. He’d be talking about developing strategies and plans for being able to address the injustices that still exist.

And he’d be concerned about the hearts of individuals who have hatred in their heart, that he’d be praying for them and encouraging others to create a better understanding of those individuals and the circumstances that might cause them to have developed such a hard spirit and want to do harm to an edifice or to the lives of any individual or group of people.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, in the wake of this national discourse on racial justice and injustice, there has been many demonstrations and protests happening across the nation. But can you talk to us about what the impact has been here locally?

Ronn Johnson, MLK Family Services: Well, we know that we saw a lot of people organizing. And it was really great to see the young people, to see a new generation of folks coming to life and voicing their opinion, coming together with unity, in unity with other members of our community and folks from beyond our community to say that “we’ve had enough. America, we are done with all of the unjust activities that have taken place over these hundreds of years, and we’re not going to stand for it.”

So, to see Black Lives Matter painted on the walkway of City Hall and Symphony Hall, a major thoroughfare here in the city of Springfield. But to have that message come out from the city, I think was very helpful. We saw the advent of a mural here at the MLK Family Services that gave tribute to all the individuals whose lives were snuffed out at the hands of law enforcement officials.

And the list continues to grow even today, which is very sad. Lets us know we have a lot more work to be done, but that the young voices that are rising up are really calling attention for America to make a change.

Zydalis Bauer: You mentioned all of the inspirational things that we have seen from this national discourse on racial justice. Besides the protests, what more can be done? What work has to be done to continue making an impact?

Ronn Johnson: Well, we have to look at our legislators. We need to look at our political leaders to examine the policies that create an unjust situation to occur in an organization, in a community, in a corporation. Wherever it is that there are policies that aren’t in step with where America wants to be at or sees itself as being, needs to be addressed.

So, I say policy change, allocation of resources, and the mandate that can be delivered also out from whether it be a lawmaker, whether it be a private corporation changing its policies about who they’re going to spend their money with, who they’re going to endorse as political candidates, what organizations they will decide about their association with.

Zydalis Bauer: We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. holiday one day a year. But what should we be mindful of for the rest of the three hundred and sixty four days?

Ronn Johnson, MLK Family Services: We haven’t arrived yet. There’s still a lot more work to be done and we need to find ways that work at the lowest levels.

So, at the macro level,we know it’s the leadership condemning acts such as arson, such as hatred, such as police violence in our community. That’s very important, to make sure that there’s a zero tolerance for any of that. That we look to our leaders for.

But then in terms of what individuals can do, I suggested recently that in our community here, we have opportunities within our school system for folks to volunteer, take an hour out once a month to go and read to children. Watch a documentary on the life and times of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Have a discussion over dinner about racial injustice and your family values, as it relates to having a zero tolerance for that and accepting that all people are created equal. It is the social environments and the policies that sometimes cause us to be disenfranchised and then looked down upon by society.