Carl James Johnson was born in 1945 in Willow Run, Michigan. His family moved to Ann Arbor when he was seven years old, after his mother suffered a stroke. He attended Jones School and Tappan Junior High and participated in the French Dukes drill team in the early 1960s. Johnson served in Vietnam in the Navy Seabees unit, where his drill experience spared him from direct action. For most of his career he worked as a caterer at the University of Michigan and Domino Farms. He celebrates his Black and Native American heritage by volunteering on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.