Reformed and Ready?

If the United States Congress could see him as a standard bearer for a makeover after such a grievous teenage mistake, why shouldn’t we, being members of his own community, his kith and kin, accept him, not for what he was, but for what he has become — a change man?

Nelson Mandela is today venerated all around the world and seen as a champion of Black dignity and Black liberation. He is the world’s leading statesman. But though he was wrongly convicted, the fact remains that he spent time behind bars, was a political prisoner, who became the first Black president of South Africa, Africa’s number one economy and the only African member of the G-20 and G-5 nations.

And it wasn’t until last year that Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) were removed from the U.S. terror list. President Ronald Reagan had placed the ANC on the list in the 1980s.

“Today the United States moved closer, at last, to removing the great shame of the dishonoring this great leader by including him on our government’s terror watch list,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) after a Congressional bill was approved to do so.

To the shock of the Western world and Black activists, Mandela, after serving 27 years of jail time, was quick to forgive and to set up the machinery for national reconciliation in a society that for decades has been bifurcated along racial lines and racial enmity.

He created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that championed the cause of forgiving those who killed thousands of Blacks in their own land, including children, in 1976 in Soweto who were asking for better education.

Mandela never pushed for an international criminal court to try those who were guilty of apartheid. Today there are apartheid culprits walking free in South Africa because Mandela’s hope for a better South Africa is rooted and grounded in the spirit of redemptive transformation and forgiveness.

Mandela gave those racists, whose hands are covered with the blood of apartheid victims, a second chance to change in a new South Africa.

Detroit’s Judge Greg Mathis was sitting in jail on drug and gun charges in his teen years as a member of the street gang, the Erroll Flynns, until he was given a second chance by Wayne County Judge Charles Kaufman.

Kaufman told Mathis he could avoid jail time if he would obtain a GED. Mathis did at the age of 18, honoring a promise he made to his mother, Alice Mathis.

Today he is one of the world’s most celebrated television and became the youngest judge in Michigan’s history. His name has even been tossed around for a run for mayor of Detroit.

Before the May 5 mayoral special election, I bumped into Judge Mathis at the Detroit Breakfast House and had a brief chat with him. He did not express any interest in running for mayor.

If we rightly accept and honor our own Judge Mathis and venerate Mandela for their transformational stories, shouldn’t we in that same spirit accept and honor the transformation and commitment of a young man like Johnson who has made himself a better person?

Former mayoral candidate Freman Hendrix spoke loudly on the campaign trail about the need to address the plight of Black men and women coming out of prison. We would have to devise a program that helps these
men and women change their lives and become productive members of society.

We cannot keep this issue under the rug. That is why I welcome the debate surrounding Johnson’s eligibility to run for public office in the absence of a guidance rule set forth by the city. After all, the existence of ex-cons is an ongoing reality that must be acknowledged and dealt with effectively.

Those who have changed their lives like Johnson, Yusef Shakur and others should be embraced to become more productive in our community, not thrown away into the lion’s den.

Shakur today is leading HOPE (Helping Our Prisoner Elevate), a group that sponsors bus trips for families of the incarcerated every year. HOPE also provides back-to-school supplies to children of incarcerated parents. In addition, HOPE is the author of Building Bridges, a workbook that assists children whose parents are behind bars in dealing with the trauma and challenge of the situation.

What kind of rehabilitation goes on behind prison walls given the high rate of recidivism in the African-American community? What kind of preparation do we have for those coming out of prison? Because they belong to this community we have to deal with them.

Is it more expensive to incarcerate than to educate?

Detroit Police Chief Warren Evans recently credited Johnson for gathering young Black men on the east side to patrol a neighborhood where a serial rapist (eventually caught) was on the loose. Evans called Johnson “a friend and a mentor.”

Civil rights matriarch Rosa Parks once said, “You cannot expect children to know what they have not been taught.”

That means that as parents we are biologically and morally obligated to raise our children to understand and appreciate the value of life.

The mistakes that our children make in the streets are a reflection of the value system that exists in the home.

We cannot abdicate our responsibility of instilling the values of honesty, responsibility and respect for human life in our children.

Meaningful transformation will have to begin in the home because our young people are today competing for a better life against the negative and seemingly overwhelming distractions that the larger society

So Raphael Johnson and many other like him, including Shakur, who have changed their lives, are a testament to the unfinished business in Black America.

Senior Editor Bankole Thompson is a radio and television analyst, sought after moderator and public lecturer. His latest book is “A Matter of Black Transformation.” E-mail him at


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