This year, the theme for the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color (COSEBOC) 14th Annual Gathering of Leaders, Boys and Young Men of Color: Learning from the Footprints of the Past; Taking Footsteps to the Future, has surely made an impact on me. As we approach this year’s Gathering in Seattle, I have been thinking about two of my former students, Wendell Holiday and Kevin Johnson. These young black males were 7th and 9th grade students of mine during my early years as a teacher in Philadelphia.
Wendell Holiday was a very intelligent student who had a great smile and a penchant for humor. One day he told me that his family was moving, and he would be attending a new school. I was sad to see him leave but he was optimistic. He said, “Mr. Walker, one day I plan to run for President of the United States.” This was a significant and unusual declaration for a black boy to make in 1972.
Two weeks later, I received word that Wendell had been murdered. It shook me to the core. I lost this bright young student to street violence.
Kevin Johnson was personable, handsome, easy to talk with, and very intelligent. When I took a new position in Massachusetts, I encouraged Kevin to continue to soar. Years later, Kevin wrote to me from prison. He was incarcerated for life without parole for murder. I received that first letter in 1986. Kevin and I have been writing ever since. It was Kevin, working as an inmate assistant, who invited me to be the keynote speaker at a ceremony for 100 inmates, mostly of color, receiving their High School Equivalency Diploma.
I spoke right after an inmate whose words ignited a fire within me. He said, “Though I am a felon and a lifer and may never see freedom, I am free because I am now educated.” After hearing those words, I resolved to do something. In September 2007, a year after listening to this speaker, I started the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color.
Recently, I received a letter from Kevin Johnson’s lawyer. The murder accusation against Kevin had been recanted. Kevin is now represented by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, and he has a chance at freedom after 30 years in prison. He never gave up hope.
I often think about Wendell and Kevin and the influence their stories continue to have on me and on COSEBOC’s work. Join us in Seattle at the 14th Gathering of Leaders, April 28-30, 2020 as we continue to advance the social, emotional, cultural, and academic development of boys and young men of color. It’s a great occasion to think about whose footprints influenced your own footsteps..
See you in Seattle,