Josie Johnson reflects on MLK “I Have A Dream” speech, and Barack Obama’s words 45 years later

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Listen: Josie Johnson recalls MLK I Have A Dream speech 45 years later

MPR’s Curtis Gilbert talks with civil rights activist Josie Johnson about the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama.

By sheer coincidence, Barack Obama will accept his party's nomination on the anniversary of another milestone in America's march toward greater racial equality. It was 45 years ago that Martin Luther King Junior gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. One of the Minnesota delegates at DNC Convention, Josie Johnson, is a witness to both historic moments.


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CURTIS GILBERT: Josey Johnson was 32 when she helped lead a group of Minnesotans to the march on Washington. Then Black Americans were fighting just for the right to vote.

JOSEY JOHNSON: And to be now 77 and to see the possibility of an African American become president of the United States is just beyond belief.

CURTIS GILBERT: And 45 years later, Johnson's memories of that day are as clear as ever.

MARTIN LUTHER KING: I have a dream.

JOSEY JOHNSON: There was a hush--

MARTIN LUTHER KING: That one day--

JOSEY JOHNSON: --over the audience.

MARTIN LUTHER KING: --this nation will rise up--

JOSEY JOHNSON: And I remember standing there--

MARTIN LUTHER KING: --live up the true meaning of its--

JOSEY JOHNSON: Almost transfixed.

MARTIN LUTHER KING: --we hold These truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

JOSEY JOHNSON: And I remember the section of the speech when he was concluding,

MARTIN LUTHER KING: I have a dream.

JOSEY JOHNSON: --about the dream.

MARTIN LUTHER KING: That one day on the red hills of Georgia--

JOSEY JOHNSON: For himself, his children, for all of us.

MARTIN LUTHER KING: --sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaves.

JOSEY JOHNSON: And when you hear someone--

MARTIN LUTHER KING: --we will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream.

JOSEY JOHNSON: --and they're so clear--

MARTIN LUTHER KING: --that one day--

JOSEY JOHNSON: --and they make such good sense.

MARTIN LUTHER KING: --even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice--

JOSEY JOHNSON: You can hardly believe that the nation--

MARTIN LUTHER KING: --sponsoring with the heat of oppression--

JOSEY JOHNSON: --wouldn't respond immediately--

MARTIN LUTHER KING: --be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream.

JOSEY JOHNSON: --and just say, you are right, Dr. King.

MARTIN LUTHER KING: That my four little children--

JOSEY JOHNSON: Of course, we need to do this.

MARTIN LUTHER KING: --will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

JOSEY JOHNSON: And we're going to pass that civil rights legislation immediately. But of course, that didn't happen.

CURTIS GILBERT: The Civil Rights Act passed the next year. The Voting Rights Act the year after that. But Johnson says King's larger dream of equality remained deferred. But now, when she thinks about Barack Obama, she sees many parallels with Martin Luther King. Johnson uses all the same adjectives to describe them.

JOSEY JOHNSON: Thoughtful, smart, experienced, articulate, wonderful vocabulary.

CURTIS GILBERT: And never was the connection between the two men more vivid for her than when Obama gave his famous speech on race in America.

BARRACK OBAMA: So many of the disparities that exist between the African American community and the larger American community today can be traced directly to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

JOSEY JOHNSON: For a man to be able to capture our history as a people in America in 35 minutes, I once again was just blown away.

CURTIS GILBERT: But if Johnson sees King in Obama, that can also be scary for her. The morning of our interview, she was talking to a friend in her apartment building. The neighbor related a conversation she'd recently overheard. It was between two elderly white women.

JOSEY JOHNSON: And one said to the other, what do you think about this Obama? What if he becomes president? The other woman said to her, if that happens, then we have to pray for an assassination.

CURTIS GILBERT: Chilling stories like that remind Johnson the dream hasn't come true yet. But with Obama accepting the Democratic nomination tonight, she has hope it may come true within her lifetime.

JOSEY JOHNSON: Part of his dream was to see just what we see, that is a person judged by their character rather than color. I think I may live to see that. I'm hoping I'll live at least through November 4.

CURTIS GILBERT: Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio News, Denver.


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