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“We Want the Cycle to Stop”

Please listen to this interview and tell me what headline you’d write for it:

(The interview is at

A friend posted the NPR interview with the Rev. Willis Johnson, triggered by a photo of him and an 18-year-old young man in the crowd assembled in Ferguson to speak against the shooting of Michael Brown. The interview is powerful. Twice the Reverend must stop to regain his composure. What causes him to weep is his, his father’s, and his son’s extraordinary vulnerability in America. The danger? Interaction with the police.

For me, if you listen to Rev. Johnson, the headline you write based on the most powerful testimony in this piece is the expression of the Reverend’s heart contained in his words: “We want the cycle to stop.” He is referring to the teaching passed from his father to him to his son on how to survive an encounter with the police.

Why, instead, would you chose a title that downplays, even denies, the racial nature of the problem?

I’ve been pondering this ever question since I listened to the piece. My “higher” response is that whoever listened to the interview before writing the headline was so touched, he or she experienced transcendence. The words that spoke most strongly to that listener were the Reverend’s appeal to all of humanity. The headline writer’s wish: do not let this fail to move you, whoever you are.

My more cynical self says, well, if you believe white folks won’t care about a “race issue” situation, you write the headline NPR did. Or maybe you’re stretching for the “bigger” reach, believing the insecurity of an entire segment of our society at the hands of those who are supposed to be offering protection isn’t “big” enough. Or maybe you’re really savvy and market research indeed shows whites won’t listen to a “race” issue, so you lure them in with the “human” headline, knowing that no one can listen to Rev. Johnson without having his or her heart turned. These thoughts are most cynical because each explanation assumes the headline was written for a white audience.

I don’t know what triggered the headline. What I do know is we each respond to the thing in a writing that speaks to us. For me, that which resonates is Rev. Johnson’s sorrow at his father’s need to instruct him, his need to instruct his son, and potentially his son’s need to teach his son on how not to get killed when stopped by the police. It is a continuing, generational fear for young Black men and even older Black men—the Reverend says his father must still fear for him. For me, that’s a race issue. At the same time, I hope you can’t listen to the interview without reacting to the intolerable situation as a loving, caring human being.

What touches you in the interview? Which of the Reverend’s words would you use as a headline? Thanks so much for letting me know.

"It's Not a Race Issue", constitutional right to assemble, ferguson, michael brown, NPR interview, race issue, the Reverend Willis Johnson, willis johnson

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