Outgoing state Rep. Cynthia Johnson: ‘There are some of you in this room who owe me an apology’

By: - December 7, 2022 8:20 am

Rep. Cynthia A. Johnson | House Democrats photo

Two outgoing Black Democratic women from metro Detroit offered vastly different farewell speeches on Tuesday.

Consistent with the end of session tradition, 27 members, Democrats and Republicans, reflected on their tenure in the Legislature’s lower chamber.

Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden (D-Southfield) was appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month. Bolden, upbeat, thanked her family as well as her colleagues for their service together. In January, she will become the first Black woman to serve on the state’s high court in Michigan history.

State Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden, a Democratic nominee for the Michigan Supreme Court, speaks at the Michigan Democratic Party’s nominating convention on Aug. 21, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

“My friends, while this is a bittersweet moment for me personally, there is no need to shed any tears. I will just be across the street serving as your next justice of the Michigan Supreme Court,” Bolden said.

When the 102nd Legislature convenes in January, Democrats will lead the House for the first since 2011.

Rep. Cynthia Johnson (D-Detroit) lost a primary election to her colleague Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) after the state reapportionment process pitted the Democrats in a race against each other in a newly drawn district. In May she was disqualified from the ballot for the August primary for past due campaign filing fees.

Johnson, in a lengthy 21-minute address fought back tears in a presentation that was at times extemporaneous and at other times from prepared notes. She recalled a hostile and racist voicemail message that was left on her state office telephone in 2020. In a separate incident, a Facebook video that she recorded to share her reaction to a flood of racist vitriol and death threats from supporters of former President Donald Trump was intercepted and selectively edited into a standalone 38-second clip slapped with the label “a message from a domestic terrorist” and circulated on right-wing social media sites and pages.  

“It was a public lynching,” Johnson, who is African American, said at the time. “It was a digital lynching is what it was. And it was accepted by the Republican leadership. And it was spread by the Republican leadership. And I was publicly berated by my own colleagues, by people who I thought knew me, by people who I thought knew that there was no way I would do anything to harm anyone.”

In early December 2020, following a state House Oversight Committee hearing that featured hours of Republicans airing election conspiracies, Johnson was targeted with death threats by Trump supporters. In her Facebook video, Johnson called for those issuing death threats to be held accountable.

As the edited version of the video made its way through the right wing media landscape, including Parler, it garnered outrage from Trump supporters, including Michigan Republicans. Republican House leadership went on to remove Johnson from her committee assignments. In January 2021, she ended up being assigned to a number of committees – though not the Oversight Committee, for which she had served as vice chair.

She apologized to members that she “may have harmed or hurt” during her tenure, which began in January 2019. She also spoke out against those who had treated her unfairly, implying that she was a victim of race discrimination. 

“There are some of you in this room who owe me an apology,” said Johnson, without mentioning names. “Please don’t tell me that we are in a colorblind society because we are not. I know that first-hand.”

“I wish that we would try to see through the eyes of each other,” said Johnson who spoke about the poverty and despair in portions of her district, which is located on Detroit’s west side.

She thanked her colleagues who supported her illegal dumping bills, HB 4192 and HB 4193, as well as reparations legislation, which is co-sponsored by State Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-Detroit). The Racial Equity and Reparations Fund Act, HB 5672, would provide $1.5 billion in federal money for grants, loans, investments, and other assistance for businesses and economic developments that “promote the African-American community” in Michigan.

The bills haven’t been taken up by the GOP-led House.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit.