Nelson Napoleon Johnson was born on April 25, 1943, in Airlie, North Carolina, and was raised on a family farm in the nearby town of Littleton. In 1961, he graduated from an all-black high school in Littleton and enlisted in the United States Air Force. He spent significant time at Westover Field, Massachusetts, and Baden, Germany, before being discharged in 1965. Following his discharge, he worked in Harlem, New York, for a year, before enrolling at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C.
As a student at A&T, Johnson became active in civil rights and social justice efforts in the city. He joined YES (Youth Educational Services) as a tutor, and later worked as a community organizer for YES in Fayetteville. He also served as student director of Greensboro United Tutorial Services (GUTS), was active in the Foundation for Community Development (FCD), and helped found Greensboro of Association of Poor People (GAPP) in 1968. Johnson was elected vice president of the A&T student body in 1969, and was involved in the protest at Dudley High School which eventually led violence on the A&T campus. Afterwards he was charged and convicted of disrupting a public school and inciting a riot, for which he served two months in prison.
Johnson became active in the pan-Africanism movement in the early seventies, mainly working with Youth Organized for Black Unity (YOBU). He also became interested in Maxism-Leninism, and helped form the Revolutionary Workers League (RWL), which merged with the Workers Viewpoint Organization (WVO) and changed its name to the Communist Workers Party (CWP) in 1979. That same year at a CWP rally protesting the Ku Klux Klan in Greensboro, Johnson was one of five protesters wounded when violence broke out between protesters and Klansmen. Johnson and five others were charged with felony riot for the events of November 3.
Following the completion of his undergraduate degree in political science at A&T in 1986, Johnson enrolled in the Virginia Union School of Theology in Richmond . He earned a master’s degree three years later and returned to Greensboro to serve as an assistant pastor. In 1991, he founded Faith Community Church and became its pastor. Johnson remained active in local charitable, civic, and social justice causes, among them the Greensboro Pulpit Forum and Mayor's Community Initiative. He also served as vice president of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, as a chairperson of the local chapter of Interfaith Worker Justice, and as chairman of the board for the Greensboro Justice Fund. Johnson lead efforts to establish the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission, tasked with investigating the events of November 3, 1979, and help found the Beloved Community Center, which he also served as executive director. Johnson has been honored with the NAACP Democracy, Freedom, and Human Rights Award, the AFL-CIO Faith Leader Award, and the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World Award, among others.