Daily Egyptian

Inspired by Martin Luther King, now inspiring students

By Hayley Dillon, @HayleyDillon_DE

As an African-American woman, racism is something always in the back of Twinette Johnson’s mind, no matter how much she tries to give people the benefit of the doubt.

Johnson, a law professor at SIU, who had a clerkship on the Missouri Supreme Court, has spoken at major law conferences and is about to sign a book contract with a law textbook publisher.

She said one of her first issues with race occurred when she was 9 years old in her Catholic school on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

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“I remember all of the black boys were filing into class and these little kids, they were complaining, ‘Why do we have to come to school on Martin Luther King Day?’” Johnson said.

Her teacher did not react well.

“The teacher got so upset with them, she said, ‘You guys better quiet down and stop talking about Martin Luther King, because as far as I’m concerned, all he did was die.’”

Johnson said this attitude toward someone she looked up to really hurt. 

Johnson’s school required her to write ‘God bless you, teacher’ at the end of tests but on that day, she had a different message. 

“Instead of writing, ‘God bless you’ I wrote ‘Martin Luther King will always be my hero, no matter what you say,’” Johnson said.

The teacher called her up and told her if she ever did something like that again she would be sent to the principal’s office. Johnson was sufficiently scared and backed down.

Johnson, who never told anyone about this experience until she was in her 20s, explained that these types of experiences are why race is always something she’s concerned about.

“People are always like, ‘Oh, don’t use the race card.’ I’m not really pulling the race card,” Johnson said. “It’s been dealt to me.”

Johnson has continued to overcome racial barriers in her path.

Johnson received her bachelor’s degree in English literature from Saint Louis University, her Juris Doctorate, the first professional graduate degree in law, from Tulane University and then joined the SIU law faculty in 2011.

She decided to go into law after spending a lot of time at her job at the law library at Saint Louis University. Her best friend wanted to be a lawyer, which inspired her career choice.

Law ended up being a perfect fit for her. Johnson credits her success to reaching out to people.

Johnson is still reaching out, but now she is reaching her students.

“One of the things that I really try to do with particularly [students] who I know may not know attorneys, I try to tell them, ‘Now you know one’” Johnson said. “I try to give them what I didn’t necessarily have.”

Johnson’s success has inspired many of her African-American students but she said the law field can be more diverse.

“There are certainly African-Americans in the profession, but there’s definitely room for us to grow,” Johnson said. “We’re still a minority.” 

Johnson said the struggles of black students cannot be overlooked.

“Race always makes things difficult, and I think sometimes people who don’t necessarily have to think about race may not fully get that,” Johnson said.

She said she does not let racism hold her back, and keeps her focus on what is really important­—her students.

Tommy Laye, Johnson’s research assistant and a third-year law student, speaks highly of his former professor.

“She’s a very thoughtful person,” Laye said. “She works hard to make sure her students are getting the most out of their education.”

Her co-workers also appreciate her dedication and enthusiasm. Trish McCubbin, a law professor, describes her as caring, organized and hardworking.

McCubbin said one example of Johnson’s influence is that she started a workshop on campus for junior faculty from diverse backgrounds. She said Johnson is not only important to the School of Law, but to the whole campus.

“We are very fortunate to have her,” she said.

Hayley Dillon can be reached at [email protected]

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