Jacquelyn and Kenneth Johnson say they have sat on the street corner of the Lowndes County Courthouse in Valdosta every day for months. They sit silently holding signs that ask passersby “Please Help Us Find Out Who Murdered Our Child.” On Wednesday at a rally on the front steps of the Georgia State Capitol, they were joined by a cadre of activists, preachers and politicians to demand an investigation.
While Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who were slated to address the demonstrators, never spoke, cameras rolled as speakers including BET’s Jeff Johnson, MSNBC’s Goldie Taylor, Martin Luther King III and more than a dozen others called for a full investigation into the death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson, who was found dead inside of a gym mat at Lowndes High School in Valdosta.
“I got off the plane from Baltimore this morning because I’m a father,” said Jeff Johnson. “So often we have mothers that step up…and just like there are mothers, there are fathers who have had enough, fathers who have had enough of black-on-black crime, of black-on-black brutality. But they have had more than enough of seeing black boys in places where they have been brutalized by people who don’t look like them, who want to shove it under the rug.”
Jeff Johnson also invoked the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that “an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere.”
When King’s son, Martin Luther King III, spoke, he also alluded to the words of his father as well as the legacy of recently deceased South African President Nelson Mandela.
“We’re saddened that we have to come to our state capitol and appeal to our governor for justice,” King said. “It seems that in this period of time as we are observing the passing of President Nelson Mandela that his example shows us, as did my father and many others, that you have to stand up a long time for justice.”
King’s spirit was a consistent presence at the rally, and much of the event was led by Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King had once been the preacher.
Warnock led the crowd in call-and-response chants of “No justice, no peace” and “I am Kendrick Johnson,” and called on the crowd to command action from Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who have so far not spoken out publicly about the case.
“We say to Gov. Deal, we say to the secretary of state, we say to all the elected officials of the great state of Georgia that Georgia is on trial,” Warnock said. “The integrity of the state hangs in the balance and we cannot afford to have our state receive a moral and an ethical black eye.”
Kendrick Johnson’s death was ruled an accident by local law enforcement after state medical examiners found that the three-sport athlete died of asphyxiation caused by being stuck in the mat. But his family never accepted the ruling.
“How in the world can a student go missing during school and be murdered at school?” Kenneth Johnson asked the crowd. “His vital organs were missing. From the top of his head to his liver was missing. His brain, his windpipes, his tongue, his heart and everything else inside of his body was missing. So I want the justice system to tell me how is all of that going on…It can’t be.”
Kenneth and Jacqueline won a court order to have their son’s body exhumed and a second autopsy performed in June. It was during the second autopsy, conducted by private pathologist Dr. Bill Anderson, that the family discovered the body parts had been replaced with newspaper.
“I’m not sure at this point who did not return the organs to the body,” Anderson told CNN in October. “But I know when we got the body, the organs were not there.”
On Oct. 31, Michael Moore, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia, said that federal authorities would begin an investigation into the circumstances behind Johnson’s death. But since that announcement, Jacqueline and Kenneth told the Daily World that they have heard nothing from Moore or anyone else about their son’s case.
The Johnsons’ attorney Ben Crump, who also represented Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton after the death of Trayvon Martin, also attested to having gotten no information from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“That’s why we’re here asking for this inquest,” Crump told the Daily World, adding that the teenager’s death and the circumstances surrounding the investigation and autopsy were too suspicious to be an accident.
“This was homicide, this was foul play,” he said. “They expected to sweep this under the rug. They didn’t count on Ken and Jacqui Johnson. They got the wrong family.”