At last year’s Annual Summit Against Racism, Saundra Cole, the wife of Terrell Johnson, a man who spent 17 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of murder, detailed his struggle for freedom as she awaited a new trial. This year, at the 15th Annual Summit Against Racism, Johnson, who was released from prison in September, was there to share his own story.
“The sad part is most people don’t think something like this could happen to them,” Johnson said. “These people snatched me out of my life and had no idea who I was and they gave me an identity.”
Johnson was originally sentenced to life in prison for the July 22, 1994 murder of Verna Robinson when he was just 19 years old. At the time, a key witness, Evelyn McBryde, said she saw Johnson shoot Robinson.
After years in prison claiming his innocence, Johnson’s case gained the attention of the Innocence Institute and the Human Rights Coalition, who together with Johnson’s wife, began advocating for his release. In 2008, Johnson was granted a new trial when a witness came forward and said McBryde was in the basement of his sister’s home at the time of the shooting.
“They tried to put a needle in my arm for a crime I didn’t commit. At 19 years old I didn’t know anything,” Johnson said. “If it wasn’t for the people in this community who believed, who stepped out on faith, I’d still be sitting in there like so many others.”
The Summit Against Racism, which was held at East Liberty Presbyterian Church on Jan. 26, serves as a catalyst for education, advocacy and organizing numerous civil and human rights campaigns. Johnson’s release is just one example of how the different organizations involved in the annual event are making an impact in the region.
During the “PA Prisons, Racism and the Fight for Change” workshop where Johnson and his wife spoke, panelists discussed other initiatives surrounding incarceration. Among them was Decarcerate-PA, a statewide movement opposing the construction of new prisons; and the Campaign to Abolish Solitary Confinement.
“They run these prisons like a concentration camp,” Johnson said. “You can’t go against the staff or they put you in the hole. I knew this one guy who went to the hole and when he came out, he was never the same.”
The 15th Annual Summit’s focused on several other issues including voter empowerment, election protection, White supremacy in the work place, gentrification, and Black-on-Black violence.
The Summit Against Racism is lead by the Black and White Reunion, a group organized in response to the 1996 death of Jonny Gammage, who was killed while in police custody. The event is held on the Saturday after Martin Luther King Jr. Day in an attempt to rekindle the spirit of the 1960s civil rights movement.
“For those of you who have been with us for the first time today, or in very recent years, we hope you find what many of us have found with the summit, that is that this event is the kickoff to our individual and collective commitment to make a difference, be it in our families, our communities, our schools, the nation, and the world,” said Tim Stevens, founder of the Black and White Reunion in his welcome to this year’s participants.