Asean Johnson: The 9-Year-Old Who Captivated a Nation

The youngest speaker at the March on Washington 50th anniversary is no stranger to the microphone.

Posted: 08/27/2013 04:38 PM EDT

Since his appearance at the commemorative March on Washington last weekend, Asean Johnson has become an Internet sensation.

The 9-year-old Chicago student was the youngest speaker at the event in Washington, D.C., a distinction that fell 50 years ago to John Lewis. The young elementary school student spoke on the need for renewed funds and resources for the nation’s public schools.

“Every school deserves equal funding and resources,” he said to the crowd of thousands on Saturday. “I encourage all of you to keep Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream alive. Help us fight for freedom, racial equality, jobs and public education, because I have a dream that we shall overcome.”

While young Asean, a student at Marcus Garvey Elementary School in Chicago, has attracted the interest of the nation since he spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial last weekend, he has been well known to residents of Chicago for his electrifying speeches in the face of planned school closures.

Since May, when the Chicago Board of Education voted to close nearly 50 schools, he has been widely followed. During the weeks that led to the vote, the young elementary school student offered a number of impassioned speeches criticizing the plan of the administration of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to close school buildings in an effort to reduce costs.

Asean said it was a special thrill to speak in front of the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial. 

“It was a very amazing experience,” Asean said, speaking with BET.com. “I was proud of myself. It was a great feeling to speak in front of all those people on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.”

The role of elementary school activist came almost by happenstance. His mother, who works for Chicago Public Schools, was on strike last year and her young son took extraordinary interest in the issues.

“I’m not an activist nor were we an activist family,” said Shoneice Reynolds, Asean’s mother, in an interview with BET.com. “When all the schools closed during the strike, he wanted to come to the picket line with me. He had a choice to stay with the babysitter, but he said he wanted to come with me and learn about the issues.”

Before long, he was walking along picket lines in the area closer to where his family lived, accompanied by his mother. His interest on the topic of school inequities grew to the point where he asked for permission to attend community forums called by elected officials in Chicago.

“At the first hearing, he wasn’t scheduled to speak,” Reynolds said. “They had a schedule of speakers, but they had a few minutes left at the end. And he said, ‘Mommy, I want to speak.’ And he did. And he has been speaking ever since. I've always said that he's a little old man," she said, laughing. "But he and his brother — my two boys — keep me grounded."

As far as his plans when he grows up, he has several paths he is considering. “I want to be a professional football player,” he said. “But, if that doesn’t work out, my backup plan is to be a politician — like president — or a lawyer or a scientist. We’ll see.”

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(Photo: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/ MCT /LANDOV)

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