Alice Johnson loves Spring and gospel music, ocean sunsets, bible study, and Black Walnut ice cream. For its promise of new beginnings, her favorite color is green. Her mother, Sallie Mae Boggan, an unsung hero of the Civil Rights Movement, is her greatest influence. To this day, she continues to be empowered by Mrs. Boggan’s lessons of faith, courage and love. Ms Alice is a celebrated playwright and choreographer, mentor, activist, poet, mother and grandmother.
Born in Jim Crow Mississippi in 1955, inequality was as much a part of Ms. Alice’s childhood as red dust in the road. Luckily, she takes after her mother. At the age of twelve, Ms Alice led a sit-in at her school to demand lunches equal to the white school across town. To this day, she remembers going into older sister’s high school classroom to persuade the older students to join her. She roused kindergartners to seniors, and learned first hand the power of words. The students won better lunches — and a writer was born.
Married and a mother at fifteen, Ms Alice continued to raise her voice against injustice. State law forbade pregnant women from school, but Ms Alice, undettered, studied her friend’s textbooks and took their tests. When authorities refused to let her rejoin her class a year later, she took her cause directly to the school board, who urged her to drop out altogether. Instead, she sat for a grueling, day-long comprehensive exam — and scored a 98%. Ms Alice graduated on time with her classmates, and in 1973 became the very first Black woman in Olive Branch, Mississippi to hold an office job.
In the early 90’s, tragedy struck. Now a single mother of five, Alice was laid off. A year later, her youngest son was killed in a motorcycle accident. Under severe financial strain and still grieving, Alice panicked. For quick cash, she began working as a ‘telephone mule’, passing messages between drug suppliers and clients. Soon, she was arrested.
When the government offered Alice an unofficial plea-bargain of three to five years, her attorney advised her not to take it. Their case is weak, he said. You don’t want this on your record. So she went to trial, where people she’d never seen before — drug dealers facing maximum sentencing — testified against her in exchange for lesser sentencing. She was 41 years old. Now 62, Ms Alice is serving her 21st year of a life without parole sentence.
From behind bars, Ms Alice advocates tirelessly for other women in prison. She writes and produces plays that entertain thousands of incarcerated women. An ordained minister, certified Hospice volunteer and personal trainer, she teaches wellness classes and served as a mentor for C.H.A.N.G.E, a twelve month residency program. Via prison monitored skype sessions, she has spoken to students about her experience at the NYU, Yale, University of Washington, and Hunter’s college, and presented to audiences at criminal justice reform events hosted by Google in Washington, DC and Los Angeles.
Of freedom, she misses the simple things. Being outside at night. Stargazing. Vibrant colors and park swings. Pillows, a queen-sized bed, a hot bath. The feel of carpet beneath her feet. Choosing what to wear. Opening the refrigerator door. A child in her arms, asleep.
“No matter what happens,” Ms Alice wrote in a powerful CNN Op-Ed after being denied clemency, “I was not built to break. I will keep writing. I will continue to hold my head high and live a productive life either as a free woman or here behind bars. God has shown me my strength.”
This video heartfelt video from Ms. Alice on mic.com has garnered over 4 million views.