Listen: Josie Johnson honored for a lifetime of civil rights work with a gift for the next generation

MPR’s Peter Cox reports on creation of Josie Robinson Johnson fellowship.

The University of Minnesota is establishing a fellowship in the name of one of the state's foremost civil rights leaders. The Josie Robinson Johnson fellowship will go to graduate students at the Humphrey School for Public Affairs who have specific interest in addressing racial inequities and injustices - a subject Johnson and other luminaries reflected on at event announcement.


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SPEAKER: The University of Minnesota is establishing a fellowship in the name of one of the state's foremost civil rights leaders. The Josie Robinson Johnson Fellowship will go to graduate students at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, who have specific interests in addressing racial inequities and injustices, a subject she and other luminaries reflected on last night. Peter Cox reports.

PETER COX: Josie Johnson is a pillar of civil rights in Minnesota and nationally. Johnson began her activism at a young age. In Houston, Texas, in the 1940s, she gathered signatures on an antipoll tax petition. She kept fighting for civil rights and equality in Minnesota and across the country. But she's worried.

JOSIE ROBINSON JOHNSON: I feel sometimes having been working in the field since I was a young teen to age 88, that you wonder what it has been for.

PETER COX: Johnson pointed to, among other things, challenges to affirmative action in college admissions in the state of Georgia, questioning thousands of voter registrations, the majority of which are African-American.

JOSIE ROBINSON JOHNSON: Worry about my grandchildren and great-grandchildren, whether they will have to face the same kinds of issues grandma, great-grandma had to face and whether we will ever really be a free nation.

PETER COX: Johnson's lifetime of activism and education includes leading Minnesota's delegation in the March on Washington, heading the Minneapolis Urban League, becoming one of the first faculty at the U of M's African American Studies department, and later, the first African American on the school's board of regents. She also influenced others in the civil rights movement.

VERNON JORDAN: Whatever success I may have had, I owe in part to Josie Johnson, her loyalty, her friendship, her counsel, her commitment.

PETER COX: That's Vernon Jordan, who was president of the National Urban League, advised President Clinton, and sued to desegregate the University of Georgia in 1961.

VERNON JORDAN: Our present is an extension of our history of that ancestral struggle for freedom. And because we have been here before, we know what we need. And we need more Josie Johnsons.


PETER COX: A fellowship in Johnson's honor will go to students at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs who are studying racial inequality and injustices. Former Vice President Walter Mondale says the problems may be daunting.

WALTER MONDALE: It's very important to give these young people a chance to try but also be inspired by her example. And I think this scholarship will help a lot.

PETER COX: Johnson hopes students will take risks, deeply study, and try new ideas.

JOSIE ROBINSON JOHNSON: If we can help young people develop a sense of trust in efforts that may resolve some of the problems, that's my hope.

PETER COX: She says it's important for young people to make change, to understand what it takes, but also to be empowered by that experience.

JOSIE ROBINSON JOHNSON: I just think it's important for our children to feel that things are possible.

PETER COX: Peter Cox, Minnesota Public Radio News, Minneapolis.


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