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African-American community mobilizing to defuse youth violence

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Jeffrey Perkins, president of local branch of the NAACP, talks to the crowd about making changes in the community during at meeting at the Macon County Health Department. Herald & Review/Lisa Morrison

DECATUR - John Johnson has been dedicating his life to helping at-risk young people turn their lives around for many years.

Johnson, 57, who formerly worked for the Boys & Girls Club, recently has joined forces with other men in an effort to prevent youths from following a path of violent crime.

A charter member of the recently formed group Caring Black Men, Johnson and other members have been visiting weekly with students at Phoenix Academy, the alternative Decatur public school.

"The first time we went, they were disrespectful," Johnson said. "Then they found out they weren't hearing the same thing they've always heard. We come at them as men. We had to break them down. We showed them they have to respect us as men."

Johnson was among about 35 people who attended a rally Saturday morning to recruit people to fight against youth violence.

Jeffrey L. Perkins, president of Caring Black Men, said the African-American community needs all the help it can get to combat violence and reach the young people who are assailants and victims.

"We're really at war," Perkins said. "We've got to have an army of people to talk to our parents, our children and our teachers."

Perkins said he appreciated those who came out in support of the young people on a cold morning, but he wants a bigger turnout at a meeting Nov. 18 at Stephen Decatur Middle School to create an action plan.

Sheriff's Lt. Tony Brown, warden of the Macon County Jail, said he is in a unique position as an African-American man who works in law enforcement.

"I keep seeing people who look like me," Brown said.

After hearing Perkins speak, Brown said he plans to join Caring Black Men to help young people to succeed.

While Brown grew up with a single mother in inner-city Decatur neighborhoods, he said he had an advantage over many other young people.

"My mom was a strict disciplinarian," Brown said. "She was a rock. My mom spent time with me. She talked to me. She told me the path she wanted me to take. She really didn't give me an option."

Perkins, president of the Decatur Branch of the NAACP and longtime community volunteer, said he decided the community needs a new way to help young people after seeing an endless stream of news reports about young people killed or sent to prison.

He recruited a small group of men to visit schools on a weekly basis to show the at-risk students "what a young man really is."

"Our interest is human lives," Perkins said, adding that a lack of funding for nonprofit organizations means more people will have to step up and volunteer to fill the gaps.

Johnson said he is using innovative techniques to gain the confidence of young men in the schools.

For example, one young man at Phoenix told him he was not planning to stop dealing drugs because he was making lots of money.

Johnson said he pulled out a $20 bill and told the teen he would give it to him if he was so wealthy that he had a $20 bill of his own. The young man could not meet that challenge, which made him lose face in front of his peers, who were more respectful of the visiting men.

"They laughed him out of the room, and he had to leave," Johnson said.

Johnson, a former drug addict whose life was turned around by his Christian faith, has a barrelful of ideas and methods as to how to win the hearts and minds of young people.

But he said there is only one way to establish a relationship with a youngster that will break through to a hardened heart.

"You love the kids," Johnson said. "If you don't love the kids, they know it."

While visiting schools recently, he asked the students if they had fathers in their homes. Of 34 young people, just four raised their hands.

Johnson said he responded by saying, "From now on, we're your dads. We're going to talk to you about things your fathers should be talking to you about."

One message the Caring Black Men teach the young people is that the way to show they love their mothers is to stay out of trouble.

Johnson tells them, "How do you love your mother if she's crying when you're locked up?"

hfreeman@herald-review.com|421-6985

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