There are many firsts in the life of Jermaine Johnson ’09. He is the first in his family to earn a doctorate. He scored the very first points in the College of Charleston Carolina First Arena (now TD Arena). And he is the first African American ever to represent South Carolina District 80 in the South Carolina House of Representatives.
But the word last also figures prominently in Johnson’s life, because he is the very last person to think that he would ever come this far.
Born in South Central Los Angeles during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic, Johnson saw firsthand the impact drugs had on a community – and in his family. He watched as his boyhood friends became addicts, gang members and drug dealers. His parents also struggled with substance abuse and addictions, which rolled the family into a cycle of homelessness and living in and out of hotels following evictions. Johnson still bears the scars from that childhood, both emotionally and physically, including one on his face after being pistol-whipped as a teenager.
“As I was growing up, my very first goal in life was just to live and see the age of 18,” he says.
He knew he had to adapt. He knew he had to change. He knew he had to become independent – and basketball was his ticket out. Johnson discovered his talent around the age of 9, playing in several organized basketball leagues with other kids his age and completely dominating. As his body grew, so did his basketball skills.
During his teenage years, he made the Amateur Athletic Union league in Los Angeles and traveled to other areas of the country to play against other AAU teams. One of his AAU coaches knew that Johnson, then 16, needed to escape the drugs, gangs and violence of Southern California in order to thrive in the sport. After a couple of phone calls, the coach found a spot for Johnson at Trinity-Pawling School, an independent college preparatory boarding school in Pawling, New York.
He transferred to Winchendon School in Massachusetts his senior year and showed everybody that he had the talent to go to the next level. His biggest fear was he was not academically ready for college. His worries were soon over.
Johnson recalls the day he received the results of his SAT. It was one of the most memorable days of his life because his scores were high enough to become eligible to play NCAA college athletics. “I ran around the school screaming, ‘I’m going to college, I’m going to college!’ When I got my SAT results, I knew it was going to be a new beginning for my life. I was going to be able to break the generational curses by going to college and doing something different.”
During his senior year in high school, the 6-foot-6-inch, 235-pound forward started to catch the eye of college recruiters. He had a lot of looks, but no offers. Then the phone call came in: University of Rhode Island coach Jim Baron wanted to meet with him.
The two took photos together, and Johnson was handed a URI jersey and immediately committed to play basketball for the Rams. But his excitement turned to despair two weeks later when he received another call from the coach telling him that his basketball scholarship was given to someone else. Filled with self-doubt, Johnson wondered if any team wanted him.
Then he received another phone call. This one was from College of Charleston basketball coach Tom Herrion, who invited Johnson to come to Charleston for a visit. Johnson admitted that he had never heard of the College but decided to take the visit anyway. Hours after arriving on campus, he was offered a spot on the team and Johnson agreed to become a Cougar.
He had his ups and downs at CofC. At one point during his sophomore year, he decided to leave the College after Herrion was fired and the coach hired to take over the basketball program abruptly resigned a day after accepting the position. Johnson said he’d had enough. He flew back to Southern California and planned to transfer to Long Beach State University.
Days later, Bobby Cremins accepted the job as the new CofC basketball head coach – and it wasn’t long before he got some advice from Hall of Fame CofC coach John Kresse.
“Bobby, you need to go visit Jermaine,” Kresse said. “Jermaine will be a very good player for you.”
In one of his first acts as CofC head coach, Cremins hopped on a plane, flew to Southern California and met with Johnson and his mother. After a long conversation, he convinced Johnson to return to the Lowcountry to finish his college career.
Cremins coached Johnson for three seasons and admits that he and Johnson did not always get along. But Cremins credits Johnson for moving the basketball program forward. “He helped us build the program we wanted to build,” says Cremins. “Jermaine was a big part of our growth process.”
During his four years at the College, Johnson made his mark in the record books. He finished his career with 1,276 points, which ranks 13th on the College’s all-time list. He’s one of only four players in the College’s history to score at least 1,100 points and grab 850 rebounds. Johnson was the Southern Conference Freshman of the Year and served as captain of the basketball team his final year, earning a spot on the third team All-Southern Conference honors.
After graduating with a degree in communication and a minor in theater, Johnson crossed the Cistern on his way to a pro basketball career. Picked in the sixth round of the NBA draft, he was sent to Nevada to play in the NBA D-League for the Reno Bighorns but was released after a year.
Johnson decided to continue his basketball career overseas, and ultimately played in the international leagues with teams in Canada, Portugal, Mexico and Brazil. He loved the life of a professional basketball player but realized he had to think about his future.
While in between seasons in 2012, Johnson decided to go job hunting and ended up accepting a position as a corrections officer at the Broad River Correctional Center in Columbia. His first paycheck of $625 gave him a bit of a shock. Oh, my gosh, he thought, I’m putting myself in danger every single day, and they’re going to give me $600 to risk my life every single day? He knew something had to change. With the support of his wife, Evan, who was studying pharmacology at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, Johnson decided to play basketball in Brazil, while also taking online classes to obtain a master’s degree in project management. By the time he finished his degree, he was playing in Canada.
His basketball career kept him away from home for months at a time. He missed his wife and his children, and the time away was starting to put a strain on his marriage. After a lot of reflection about life after basketball, he started a nonprofit organization, the New Economic Beginnings Foundation, which helps to educate and find employment opportunities for troubled youth and veterans.
“My main motivation behind starting this nonprofit was to ensure that no one had to go through what I had to go through growing up,” he says.
Johnson’s decision to leave basketball for good was solidified when, in February 2015, his brother Rod, who also played pro basketball in Mexico, died in a car accident. His death was a turning point. “After that, I said there are more important things in life than basketball,” he says. “I’ve already set myself up to start my career and to be with my family, so it was time to go.”
Back home in Hopkins, South Carolina, he continued with his education and eventually earned a doctorate in business administration and organizational leadership online from North Central University. He also decided to become more involved in his community.
And that’s what led Johnson to find his voice during a community forum concerning police brutality. Johnson was inspired to speak up and his speech prompted a round of applause. It also prompted a man to tap Johnson on the shoulder as he was walking out of the building.
“Jermaine, you’re the future of this community, you’re exactly what we need,” said the man, Representative Joe Neal, the late veteran civil rights lawmaker who was instrumental in having the Confederate flag removed from the South Carolina State House grounds in 2015.
Johnson had never thought about being involved in politics, but with Neal as his mentor, Johnson saw the political light. He became the Richland County recreation commissioner in 2016. He joined the Democratic Black Caucus, got involved with the Young Democrats and became the third vice chair of the Richland County Democratic Party. It snowballed from there.
“Everything just kind of fell into place, and people started calling me to be involved on this board and that board,” he says. “But it all started with that one community forum and Representative Joe Neal.”
Actually, it all started years before that, on November 4, 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. The day after the election, Johnson walked around downtown Charleston and bought a copy of The New York Times, The Post and Courier and any other newspaper that highlighted the results of the presidential election.
“I remember walking a little taller, holding my head up a little higher,” he says. “I was so excited about the history that was made.”
That’s when he began following politics and studying political positions. During the run-up to the 2020 South Carolina presidential primary, he studied each of the candidates, including a little-known Democratic presidential candidate whose platform included giving all Americans $1,000 a month.
The candidate was businessman Andrew Yang, and Johnson was impressed. “I could have definitely used $1,000 a month coming from my poverty-stricken background,” he says.
The more Johnson read about him, the more he became a Yang disciple. He’s all he talked about.
It was around this time that the chair of the Young Democrats of the Central Midlands organization received a call from the Yang campaign, which was looking for volunteers to help spread the word about Yang in South Carolina. She told them that she knew the perfect guy.
Johnson remembers receiving that first phone call from the Yang campaign while he was taking his pregnant wife to the hospital for an ultrasound. “We were in the parking lot at the hospital, and I screamed into the phone, ‘Oh, my God, they called me!’ I volunteered to do whatever Andrew wanted to do.”
It started with setting up Yang’s first big tour of South Carolina that included meetings with the mayor of Columbia and with College of Charleston President Andrew T. Hsu, political events across the state and an appearance at CofC’s Bully Pulpit series. The campaign swing was a success.
“When I met Jermaine for the very first time, I thought, Man, this guy is too good to be true,” says Yang. “But after spending time with him in South Carolina, I realized he is the real deal.”
Impressed by Johnson’s hard work and dedication to the campaign, Yang hired Johnson to be his South Carolina campaign chair a few weeks later. “I was the first and only employee on his campaign for like six months in South Carolina,” says Johnson. “I had a great time. We’re still great friends.”
After running the Yang campaign in South Carolina, Johnson started looking at politics in his own backyard. More than 40,000 people live in South Carolina House District 80 outside of Columbia, and over 48 percent of the voters are African Americans, yet the district has never had a Black representative. The current representative had been in office for the past 22 years. Johnson, who was born on the Fourth of July, decided the district needed a change.
“I believe that my community needed somebody who looked like them, who spoke like them, who dressed like them, who was a representation of that community,” he says. “I wanted to help with the broadband infrastructure problem we have in my community, I wanted to help with all these different things that were going on in my community.”
He won in a landslide this past November, capturing more than 75 percent of the vote.
“When I won the seat, I could not stop crying,” he says. “I was so proud. I thought about Representative Joe Neal, I thought about my parents, I thought about my grandparents and all the people that came before me, I thought about all the sacrifices that people had made, all the shoulders that I stand on to be who I am today.”
Jaime Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, was not surprised by Johnson’s victory – he knew Johnson was the right person to help move South Carolina forward. “Jermaine is a superstar who focuses on eliminating barriers for all of America’s people,” says Harrison. “He is a tremendous force for good in South Carolina.”
But the battle continues for Johnson. As one of the few African Americans in the General Assembly, he knows he has to work harder than other lawmakers. “It’s a lot of pressure to be one of the few, but you also need to understand that I was prepared for this situation,” he says. “There were plenty of times when I was the only Black person in a classroom at the College of Charleston. Sometimes professors or the other students didn’t understand what was going on, and they looked to me as the spokesperson for the entire Black community. It’s a horrible situation to be put in; however, it did prepare me for these types of situations.”
As for his political future, Johnson doesn’t see himself in that House seat for a long time. He has pledged to only serve five terms in office. “I believe the best leaders know when to pass the torch, so I’m doing succession planning already to get somebody in here behind me so I can leave it in better shape than I found it.”