When Ron Johnson was a young boy growing up in Missouri, he would often see police officers in his community taking time to talk to children, play with them and sometimes even buy them ice cream from a nearby ice cream truck on a hot summer day.
They became heroes in Johnson’s eyes. And he knew from an early age that he wanted to grow up to be like them, to make a difference in people’s lives and to be a person to whom people turned in a time of need.
On July 1, 1987, Johnson’s boyhood dream became a reality as he joined the Missouri Highway Patrol, shortly after graduating from college with a criminal justice degree. He steadily rose through the ranks before becoming a captain in 2002.
Little did he know then that 12 years later he would be at the epicenter of one of the nation’s most volatile seasons of civil unrest since the 1960s.
On Aug. 9, 2014, the small Saint Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, with a population of just over 21,111, was unexpectedly thrust into the international spotlight when Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer.
The shooting prompted protests that ripped through the Ferguson community for weeks and led to other protests across the country.
Just five days into the aftermath of the shooting, which included protests, riots, looting, acts of arson and vandalism and violent clashes between law enforcement and protestors to name a few, Johnson was called upon to defuse the violence and stop the great divide that gashed the community where he grew up. On Aug. 14, 2014, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon appointed Johnson to lead security operations in Ferguson. He learned of his appointment at a press conference.
One of the first things Johnson did in his new post was walk with protestors down West Florissant Avenue. He said at that moment, he didn’t have a plan. So, he did what he knew to do — to be a part of the community that was so much a part of him.
It was a move that surprised many — that a law enforcement official would march with the protestors who were protesting against them. He walked down the streets of Ferguson, side-by-side those who were so violently opposed to anyone wearing the mantle of law enforcement. People lined the streets yelling, jeering at him.
“But I didn’t see hate,” he recalls. “I saw pain. I wore their pain. I could feel it. So, the yelling didn’t bother me. It enriched me. Then I started making decisions from that. When I walked down the street I wasn’t afraid because I saw pain, not hate.”
He relied on his faith during this tumultuous time.
“My mom had always told us that God would not give you more than you can bear,” says Johnson. “There were some tough days in Ferguson, and I would say ‘God, I know you’re not giving me more than I can bear.’ I’d ask God, ‘But am I strong enough?’”
“There were days during Ferguson when I felt that I didn’t have a friend, that I couldn’t talk to anyone. God can be many things to us. He is our father. He can be our friend. But in that moment he became my hero.”
Johnson says during the experience at Ferguson he talked about his faith more openly than at any other time in his life. He began a practice of starting the daily police briefings with a prayer. Some officers initially made negative comments.
“But as days went on in Ferguson and it would come time to pray, I’d peek and open my eyes and I’d see that every eye was closed. The men were praying and tears were coming out of their eyes,” he remembers. “So how powerful is our faith, and how strong can it make us? It can see us through to a brighter day.”
He also drew great strength from his wife, Lori, and his two children, who were his rock as he became a household name through the media and the weight of not just Ferguson, Missouri, but the nation bore down on him.
“During Ferguson, I’d get home late — three or four in the morning,” he recalls. “Every time, sitting up in our home wide awake was my wife. She would always be waiting. She’d always give me this vote of confidence. ‘I saw you on the news, and I was so proud of you.’”
“I had always assumed that I was this rock for her. During Ferguson she was that rock that I could come home to, and knew that no matter what happened or who didn’t agree with me, that there was one person in that home when I got home, that there was one place that no one was going to say that I was wrong or that I could do better or who would doubt my strength.”
Ten days later, a calm returned to the city for the first time since the shooting of Michael Brown. Although the city endured a few more moments of tension in the months following the shooting and on the one-year anniversary of the event, Ferguson today has returned to a sense of normalcy and peace — largely due to the leadership of Johnson.
For his efforts, Johnson has received much notoriety and awards, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce’s 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2914 Ebony Power 100’s Community Crusader Award and was named one of CNN’s Extraordinary People of 2014.
Today, Johnson continues to live out his boyhood dream as the command officer of Missouri State Highway Patrol Troop C, and he travels the country sharing his faith and the lessons he learned during those days in August 2014.
He visited the Lipscomb University campus Feb. 20-22 to meet with students, faculty, staff and community leaders to discuss his view of leadership and the faith that has sustained him. The Office of Intercultural Development, the Office of Student Life and the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences offered the Lipscomb community a series of opportunities to hear Johnson’s story.
On Feb. 20, Johnson discussed “Redefining Leadership in Crisis” in a town hall meeting for students and guests from the community moderated by Steve Joiner, dean of the College of Leadership & Public Service. He shared insight into his faith journey during an interview with Presidential Spouse Rhonda Lowry at the Gathering Feb. 21.
Johnson also met with the Respect Leads committee at a special luncheon and with several community leaders at a dinner that evening. He ended his visit with a breakfast for students on Feb. 22 where he again shared stories of his faith journey and experiences during the Ferguson unrest.
“Leadership can be tough,” he told the students, “but what a blessing it is to lead.”
— Video by Josh Shaw; Photos by Kristi Jones. Photo of Johnson walking with protestors is from the Kansas City Star website.