David Johnson (C’19) plans to explore transitional justice through Watson Fellowship

Pictured: David Johnson (C’19). Photo courtesy of Johnson.

By Klarke Stricklen
Junior Editor

David “Chief” Johnson (C’19) has just been named Sewanee’s 48th recipient of the Watson Fellowship, a prestigious award given to students who develop a research project centered in foreign countries. The award is given to passionate students who strive to not only understand their topics from a global standpoint, but who wish to use their research to further combat existing issues in America. So, it was to no surprise that Johnson received the fellowship for his project on transitional justice.

The idea of transitional justice came to Johnson after taking a World Politics class that touched on the subject of the apartheid in South Africa. After taking the class, Johnson began to reflect on the similarities between the United States and other countries regarding policies implemented that directly affected black communities.

His curiosity led him to research what other countries had done to reconcile with their pasts and how the United States could benefit from learning this information. Johnson eventually turned this thought into a proposal for a graduate studies scholarship application, but was denied due to the lack of faith of a few professors not only his academic achievement, but in his proposal as well.

For Johnson, this denial only meant that he should further his research regarding the topic. While his professors believed that the proposal lacked the concept of public service, Johnson, who has served as the president of the Tennessee Youth & College branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) throughout his college career, knew that this proposal had everything to do with public service as well as furthering the work that he had already done with the NAACP.  

So, when he saw a poster in the library about the Watson, he knew he had to reach out to not only Sewanee professors, but scholars around the world who were researching the same concept.

Within a year, Johnson had completed his application and made it to the semi-finalist round. Throughout the entire month of March, he began checking the website daily until the official press release was uploaded on March 15. As he scrolled down the page of winners and universities, he suddenly stopped when he saw Sewanee.

“All I could do was drop to my knees and start praying,” said Johnson. “It was just a crazy and surreal experience.”

Johnson finds this experience to not only be an opportunity to participate in global research, but a pilgrimage for self growth as Malcolm X did in Mecca.

“By no means am I comparing myself to Malcolm X,” said Johnson. “But I want to see if this project that I have created is something that I want to dedicate my life to.”

Johnson’s project stems from frustrations not only discussing the same topics regarding African Americans, but wanting to seek out new ways to combat existing issues by “properly applying the historical context that it needs.”

He hopes that this trip will allow him to further push his passions in America as well as establishing some form of transitional justice that could benefit African Americans. Johnson believes that the idea of sharing his truths and experiences as an African American with those in other countries and in return hearing theirs is simply amazing.

“Being able to share these experiences is insane,” said Johnson. “Because no one has ever done it before, at least not the way I’m about to do it.”

Johnson hopes to change the way we think about recurring issues in the black community and lead us on a path that not only acknowledges the past to its entirety, but paves the way for a brighter and stronger future.


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