White House point man on Freddie Gray has deep ties to Baltimore

Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson addresses a news conference at Frederick Douglass High School in May, after state and national officials met with students about Freddie Gray's death.
Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson addresses a news conference at Frederick Douglass High School in May, after state and national officials met with students about Freddie Gray's death.(Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Broderick Johnson recalls seeing the looters and the buildings on fire as he and his parents drove through Baltimore in the days following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

"They were searing images you can't forget," Johnson, who was 11 years old at the time, said of the 1968 riots.


A White House adviser who has been leading the Obama administration's effort to reach out to young men of color, Johnson has been something of an ambassador to West Baltimore since the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who suffered a spinal injury in police custody.

He brings a deep resume to the work, having spent nearly three decades in behind-the-scenes roles in Washington. But he also has a personal history with Baltimore, where recent unrest has triggered broad discussions about race, policing and long-neglected neighborhoods.

"You see many of the same problems, many of the same concerns, decades later," Johnson said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun. "I've been reminded of what West Baltimore seemed like when I was a child growing up."

Johnson, 58, chairs the My Brother's Keeper initiative, which President Barack Obama created last year to assist young men. The job has kept him busy in recent months as police interactions with African-Americans in Ferguson, Mo., New York and North Charleston, S.C., have captured the nation's attention, forcing uncomfortable conversations about racism and poverty.

And so it was Johnson whom Obama sent, along with others, to Michael Brown's funeral last year in St. Louis. Brown, an unarmed teen, was fatally shot by police in Ferguson in August, setting off nationwide protests.

When the president sent Johnson to Gray's funeral on April 27, there was an added and unmistakable connection for him. Until her recent death, Johnson's mother attended New Shiloh Baptist Church, where the services took place. His stepfather is still an active member.

Johnson spent his early years in Park Circle, just blocks north of Mondawmin Mall — the site of unrest that spread across much of West Baltimore on the day of Gray's funeral. His parents went to Frederick Douglass High School. He attended St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church until his parents moved out of the city to Woodlawn, where he went to high school.

Now a Washingtonian, Johnson has returned to Baltimore in the wake of the looting and violence that erupted last month. Last week, he stood with U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan at Frederick Douglass as they announced plans for a federally funded job-training program for young adults in West Baltimore.


Several city leaders said Johnson's presence — and what it represents — have been significant for the neighborhood.

"Investments are good, but I also know that symbolism has its place," said New Shiloh's pastor, the Rev. Harold A. Carter Jr. "Just to know that the White House, through Broderick, has an interest speaks volumes to me. It's a source of inspiration."

The president himself has faced criticism for not visiting Baltimore after Gray's death. Though Obama has spoken of the case extensively, he has argued that a presidential visit would direct police resources away from the streets where they are now needed. He hasn't ruled out a future visit.

But his administration has been playing a behind-the-scenes role on many fronts. The visit by Perez and Duncan came a day after U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch spent an afternoon in Baltimore, meeting with city leaders and Gray's family. The Department of Justice has launched investigations into Gray's death and the city Police Department, and this month committed $20 million to cities to expand the use of body cameras worn by officers.

Valerie Jarrett, a longtime senior adviser to Obama, has been in contact with Gov. Larry Hogan and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Soon after the looting, Jarrett spoke with Larry J. Merlo, the CEO of CVS, about the stores damaged by looters. The company has announced plans to rebuild the stores.

The Obama administration has also reached out to celebrities with ties to the city and asked them to play a role in helping to ease tensions. Sports figures such as New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, who played basketball at Towson Catholic High School, and former Ravens star Ray Lewis embraced those requests in the days immediately following the riots.


Cornell William Brooks, CEO of the Baltimore-based NAACP, gave the White House high marks overall for its response in the city.

"You have an administration sending in Cabinet secretaries. You have an administration whose days-old attorney general is launching a pattern-or-practice investigation [of police]," Brooks said. "This is not typical."

Johnson has played a significant part in that effort.

As an assistant to the president, and the secretary of the Cabinet, Johnson acts as a liaison between the White House and Cabinet secretaries. The president also tapped Johnson to lead the My Brother's Keeper task force, created last year to engage private businesses and foundations in the effort to help young black men close education and employment gaps.

The president recently announced the creation of a corporate-backed nonprofit organization, the My Brother's Keeper Alliance, which will engage in some of the same work.

Johnson earned a degree in philosophy from the College of the Holy Cross in 1978 and a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1983. He began his career in government that same year as an assistant counsel in the House of Representatives' Office of Legislative Counsel.

He worked in the Clinton White House, advised presidential campaigns — including Obama's in 2008 — and was a top lobbyist for several large companies such as AT&T.

Although it was painful for him to watch last month's violence, Johnson said it has been inspiring to see the community come together since then. He remains optimistic about the city's future, despite the fact that the efforts by many presidential administrations over several decades have done little to put a dent in the poverty in some urban areas.

"The president has been very clear with me, to go and listen to what people have to say, to go and listen to what young folks are saying," Johnson said.

"These young folks are not cynical," he added. "There was a lot of hope."