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Rebecca Baker Erwin, New Haven Register, Feb. 27
WEST HAVEN — A provocative speech about racial injustice prompted dozens of white students at West Haven High School to walk out of the assembly in protest Thursday.
But the majority of juniors and seniors who stayed in the auditorium stood and cheered speaker Jeffrey Johnson, saying he told the unpleasant truth.
“He spoke about stuff that people sugarcoat,” said Gary Gregory, a 16-year-old junior. “If people can’t handle it, they can’t handle it.”
Johnson, president of Speaking Truth to Power Co. in Baltimore, was in town to be the guest speaker at tonight’s West Haven Black Coalition’s annual awards banquet.
The 30-year-old national activist sparked jeers by some students when he talked about “the system” that sends young black men into prison and special-education classes rather than to college.
“Young black boys are targeted by these systems,” he said, citing the “systematic racism in place.”
The tension hit its high point when Johnson said that black boys are often suspended and expelled from school for breaking rules, while “white boys go back to class.”
The comments brought thunderous applause from black students, but an almost all-white group of students walked out of the auditorium. Many of the remaining students showered their classmates with boos and taunts.
Johnson continued to talk over the pandemonium.
“If people want to walk out — peace,” he said. “I’m not here to down anybody. I’m here to be honest. This is time for us to learn together. This isn’t about offending anyone.”
Regardless, some students, most of them white, said Johnson’s remarks were inappropriate and racially divisive.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Ronnie Baia. “If anything, he should be saying how we should be one.”
Emily Dargo, 16, disagreed with Johnson that blacks live in a world that doesn’t want to see them succeed.
“That (kind of comment) doesn’t help the racial situation in this school,” she said.
One black student who joined those who walked out, Hannibal Gibson, 17, said he doesn’t believe the system treats blacks differently than it does whites.
Other black students, however, embraced Johnson’s words.
“I think he was great,” said Ulesha Howard, 17. “To me, he was saying stuff no one else wanted to say. He was educating us.”
Melvin Campbell, 17, said Johnson’s speech was “empowering” and that those who walked out showed intolerance.
“Some people who walked out were my friends,” he said. “My friends who did stay, I look up to them a lot more.”
Sara Hicks, a sophomore, drew up a petition stating that the walkout was disrespectful and that administrators were wrong not to punish those involved. One hundred students signed the document, she said.
“We disagree with what our teachers say and we just can’t get up and walk out of class,” she said.
Principal Ron Stancil said Johnson gave an “excellent” and “inspiring” speech, but disagreed with Johnson’s statement that black students are punished more harshly.
“West Haven High School has one set of rules,” he said.
Stancil could not be reached for comment about the petition.
Johnson, a tall, thin man with tied-back dreadlocks, said no one has ever walked out of one of his lectures before.
“It challenged us to do what’s necessary, but it’s disappointing because there were things they could have learned.”
Johnson, who plays “Cousin Jeff” on Black Entertainment Television’s “Rap City,” chided black teenagers who carry backpacks with no books inside and who try to act like “gang-bangers” when they’ve never left the suburbs.
The former national youth and college director for the NAACP, Johnson said American society spends money to build new jails but not to fix broken-down schools, where students learn a limited amount about black history.
“I love (the Rev. Martin Luther) King, but King wasn’t the only person who contributed to black history,” he said. “Young black kids … don’t know their own history.
Rebecca Baker Erwin, New Haven Register, Mar. 10
WEST HAVEN — A racially critical editorial in the West Haven Voice prompted the head of the West Haven Black Coalition to call for a boycott of all businesses that advertise in the weekly paper.
“We need to stop doing business with them,” coalition President Carroll E. Brown told a small group at the House of Jacob Church Tuesday night.
Brown called the community awareness meeting to discuss the editorial and the controversy that a black guest speaker created at West Haven High School on Feb. 23.
About two dozen white students walked out in protest of a speech by former NAACP youth leader Jeffrey Johnson, a Black History Month speaker who talked about unfair treatment of blacks in society.
The walkout in turn created racial tension at the school, particularly by black students demanding punishment for those who walked out of the assembly.
The editorial, written by Voice Editor and Publisher Bill Riccio Jr., called Johnson a “race pimp” who blamed whites for black people’s problems.
Brown, who passed out copies of the paper at the meeting, said the editorial was “an attack on the whole African-American community.”
“We should all be enraged,” she said.
Riccio, who has written numerous articles critical of Brown, questioned why Brown went after his advertisers rather than discussing the editorial with him.
“I’m not going to put myself in a defensive posture,” he said. “I’m not going to play those games.”
Several people at the meeting praised and supported Sara Hicks, a sophomore who started a petition saying that the walkout was disrespectful and that administrators were wrong not to punish those involved.
Several people at the meeting, including Brown, recommended diversity training for faculty and a more racially diverse curriculum.
“Students did not have the tolerance to listen and to digest what was really being said,” said West Haven resident Curtis Jordan, 71.
Others who spoke at the meeting said West Haven has too few black teachers and administrators.
“West Haven is small enough to correct the racial divide,” said Cynthia Jennings, a civil rights lawyer and member of the Greater New Haven NAACP.
The meeting ended with the creation of a 22-member committee that will draw up recommendations for diversity training, curriculum and hiring to present to the superintendent of schools and Board of Education.
“We are African Americans struggling to make a difference in our own community,” she said. “We need to change things.”
Rebecca Baker Erwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 789-5716.