Dr. Jessica Johnson: Redemption still possible for youth with hatred in their hearts

The bomb threats received by historically Black colleges and universities across the nation continue to be disturbing headlines. More than 20 schools have been targeted, and as of this writing, six people have been tied to the cases that are under investigation, according to the FBI. Some of the most well-known HBCUs that have received threats include Howard University in Washington, D.C. and Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. Thankfully, no bombs have been found in searches thus far, but the threats keep coming.

Howard issued a shelter-in-place order on Feb. 2, and many HBCU students at targeted campuses are frustrated and fearful with constant warnings and updates being issued through their institutions’ social media. My alma mater, North Carolina Central University in Durham, received a bomb threat at the beginning of January, and I immediately thought about my college friends who have children attending our beloved “Dear Old NCC” and the other schools that have been put on alert. Prayers were going up for the safety of my friends’ kids and their fellow HBCU peers, and it was difficult for me to even imagine something like this happening during my undergraduate years from 1987 to 1991. It’s not that such a horrifying threat could not have occurred back then, but those years definitely had a different aura. Howard University President Wayne Frederick had similar sentiments, telling CNN that these “challenges” are more “widespread” and “overt” since he was a student on the D.C. campus in 1988.

The six “persons of interest” behind these threats have been described as “tech savvy juveniles” by mainstream media reports. Not much information is currently available about them, but the FBI believes they have racist motives, which is not surprising. The FBI is investigating the threats as hate crimes, and their “2019 Hate Crime Statistics” showed that racial ethnicity/ancestry was the top motivator for violent offenses, with religion a distant second. People with disabilities were also included in these findings. I’m sure the perpetrators singling out HBCUs have countless, repugnant reasons behind their animosity.

With this being Black History Month, and the fact that they are juveniles, a primary reason could be that they despise learning about influential African Americans in school. They could also simply detest the rich tradition and culture of HBCUs. Whatever their key motives are, the most troubling factor to me is that they are so young.

In my class discussions on racism with students in my English and pop culture courses, many of them have expressed confidence that their generation, Gen Z, will not be bound by the prejudices that hindered the generations of their parents and grandparents. One of the most inspiring responses that a former English student posted in a class assignment on the civil rights movement was that her generation “needs to take care of each other and take care of our country.” Another student wrote that “our generation is putting up a huge fight, not just for ourselves, but for everyone around us to be treated equally.” Overall, my students agreed that race relations are far from perfect even with the gains of the civil rights era, but they were optimistic that progress will continue as they come of age.

Obviously, the juveniles identified in the HBCU bomb threats have been negatively influenced and taught the vile tenets of racism; however, I always have hope for redemption arcs in stories like this. Although hatred is in their hearts now, these kids have their entire lives in front of them, so there is the possibility for change. I’m reminded of an example that I have previously used regarding the great testimony of former Ku Klux Klan member Tom Tarrants. Tarrants was not that much older than these teens terrorizing Black schools when he was arrested for attempting to bomb the home of a Jewish leader in Meridian, Mississippi, during the 1960s. In his 2019 book “Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love: How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation,” Tarrants is described as a “bomb-making white supremacist” who later gave his life to Christ and renounced his extremist and segregationist beliefs.

I believe God can touch the lives of these juvenile suspects just as he did with Tarrants over five decades ago. It’s a miracle I’m praying for as I continue to uplift NCCU students and sister HBCU institutions.

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Dr. Jessica Johnson

Guest Column

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at [email protected] @JjSmojc