African American Studies


Interviewee: Robert Johnson

Interviewers: Mark Naison, Brian Purnell, Natasha Lightfoot, Claude Magnum, Maxine Gordon, and Peter Derrick

Summarized by Alice Stryker

Robert Johnson the Bronx District Attorney, was born in the Bronx, but moved to the Amsterdam houses shortly after he was born. His father was a clerk in the United States Post Office and his mother was a stay at home mom when they were growing up, but moved on to a number of positions once her children had matured. Their house was not very political.

His father was Catholic and his mother was Episcopalian. He and his brother were raised Catholic. He went to St. Paul the Apostle for most of his elementary school career and then went to Power Memorial for his first 3 years of high school and to Monroe for his last year of High School. At Power Memorial he was a manager for their basketball team, Kareem Abdul Jabaar was the star of his team. His parents were worried about some of his friends and they wanted to move to a nicer neighborhood, so they moved to Lafayette Morrison in the Bronx. After high school, he attended City College.

He felt that the behavior of boys at Monroe High School was more mature than at Power because of the presence of girls. He spent a lot of time at his maternal grandparents’ house. They were from Barbados and would cook in the Caribbean style and listen to Caribbean music.

When he was younger he attended court cases with his father and he believes this is what sparked his interest in law and civil rights. Not many of his friends were involved in the anti-war politics of the 1960’s. When he withdrew from college, he enlisted in the Navy to avoid being drafted to the army. He became a quartermaster in the Navy. While he was in the navy, he really became aware of black liberation and African American rights. He did see racism in the navy. When he was let out of the navy he re-enrolled at City College as a philosophy major. He did track throughout his entire college career.

He began thinking about law school in the last semester at City College and went to NYU law. He didn’t get involved with the community until after he graduated from law school. He began working as a legal aid in Bronx Criminal Defense and then 3 years later was asked to be Assistant District Attorney. While working from Bronx Criminal Defense, he lived on Grand Avenue between 166th and McClout. He had many interesting experiences working for Bronx Criminal Defense. He discusses the rise in drug related cases, particularly in the early 80’s.

When he was working at the DA’s office, he was asked to join the Bronx Urban League. In 1984 he became the Chief of Narcotics and made connections to a number of prominent people in Bronx Politics at the time. When he was the chief of narcotics, the main focus of the DA’s office was to clean up the streets. He worked in very close proximity to the community and observed first hand how drug laws impacted the community. He also witnessed the devastating effects of crack on the Bronx.

The reason he initially went into working at the District Attorney’s office was to be a judge. He was appointed as a Criminal Court Judge. However, he got involved with Ivan Warner, a prominent African American political and legal figure who started the Black Bar Association of Bronx County. Ivan Warner suggested that he run for a Supreme Court Position in the Bronx. He had backing from all 4 political leaders, and so he resigned as Criminal Court Judge and announced his candidacy. He won the election. His campaign was about issues that were prominent in the lives of people in the Bronx at the time, like drugs and gun control. When he finally ran for the District Attorney’s office in the Bronx, he used all of this to bolster his campaign. He was a man for the Bronx. One of the controversies he experienced in the 1990’s was the issue of Governor Pataki reinstating the Death Penalty. Johnson was not in favor of this, and let the public know that he would never use it. Because of this statement, he lost support from the Republican party in the Bronx during one particular election year.

He maintains a close relationship with the police, which was exemplified during the Diallo Shooting crisis. He also comments on the number and background of people applying for jobs with the District Attorney’s office.

He discusses the Happy Land tragedy and the reactions to it. He also talks about controversial child abuse cases and the process of bringing a criminal case to jury.

He believes that his multiracial upbringing helped him in his position. He tries not to judge whether or not a person would be right for a job based on their ethnicity, but based on their skill.

Johnson, Robert.mp3 (145303 kB)

Click below to download supplemental content.

Johnson, Robert.mp3 (145303 kB)