Listen: Josie Johnson's memoir details life of a gracious fighter

MPR’s Marianne Combs presents a profile of Josie Johnson, renowned local civil rights activist. Feature includes interview with Johnson about her life and book, and comments from Vernon Jordan and Walter Mondale, amongst others.

Johnson’s memoir is titled "Hope in the Struggle."


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TOM CRANN: This coming Tuesday, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs is holding a celebration for the launch of Josie Johnson's memoir, Hope in the Struggle. Johnson is 88, and she has spent most of her life working for civil rights. Her efforts have led to many of Minnesota's most significant steps toward racial justice and equity. Marianne Combs has this profile.

MARIANNE COMBS: Josie Johnson is not the type of person to sing her own praises. But her contributions to the civil rights movement cannot be overstated just listen to civil rights icon Vernon Jordan who spoke at the University of Minnesota last October. He says, whatever success he has had, he owes in part to Johnson's counsel and commitment.

VERNON JORDAN: The only way to do justice to Josie's life and career, to honor all the progress she has helped to achieve is to put her accomplishments in a context that is measured not in minutes but centuries. Josie, you are the Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman of our time.


MARIANNE COMBS: Johnson was born and raised in Texas. She credits her parents and extended family for her strong values and sense of justice. She remembers her father wanted to go to law school. But at the time, there were no graduate programs for Black people.

JOSIE JOHNSON: I don't remember him complaining about it or making a big issue of it. He just did the next thing that worked for him.

MARIANNE COMBS: The next thing was a job as a waiter aboard the Southern Pacific Railroad where he soon went about organizing the Sleeping Car Porters and Waiters Union. From there, he went on to become a civic-minded businessman with a focus on public housing. Johnson remembers accompanying him when she was just 14 as he collected signatures to do away with the poll tax, a tax designed to prevent Blacks from voting. Similarly, Johnson's mother was also active in the community. Josie would often come along when her mother tutored illiterate white women in their kitchens.

JOSIE JOHNSON: I mean, you did what you needed to do, and it was not something that you gave a lot of thought to. You didn't expect anyone to say, [CLAPS] that's great. And you didn't expect anyone to feel that you were making some great overture or sacrifice.

MARIANNE COMBS: Johnson majored in sociology at Fisk University where she met her husband. In 1956, he was hired by Honeywell, and they moved to Minneapolis. In Minnesota, she quickly realized that racism and inequality were in many ways just as entrenched in the North as in the South. She joined the League of Women Voters and the board of the Minneapolis NAACP, and she became a community organizer for the Minneapolis Urban League, all while raising her three daughters. Soon, she became active in the DFL party. Former Vice President Walter Mondale.

WALTER MONDALE: She was, in many ways, the pre-eminent civil rights leader in Minnesota for all those years. She'd seen it all.

MARIANNE COMBS: Mondale describes Johnson as a very kind and gracious lady.

WALTER MONDALE: But underneath all that kindness, there's also a tough Josie Johnson that gets her agenda done. And if you want to fight with her, she'll be very nice about it. But you'll be sorry you got in the fight because you're going to lose.

MARIANNE COMBS: Mondale says Johnson navigated Minnesota through some of its roughest times in the '60s and early '70s, helping the white and Black communities to understand each other and work together.

WALTER MONDALE: She had a genius for that. And when we'd meet, she'd say, this is what we've got to do to resolve this. I would try to get the white community to do it, and she'd try to get the Black community. But many times, it worked.

MARIANNE COMBS: Johnson became a master at behind-the-scenes politicking. When she realized the Fair Housing bill she was lobbying for was foundering in a Senate Judiciary Committee, she paid a personal visit to Governor Elmer Anderson. While she sat in his office, he penned a note to the committee that tipped the scales in the bill's favor.

Minnesota was the first state in the nation to pass such a bill. In 1963, Johnson was part of the Minnesota delegation that marched on Washington and heard Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech. In 1964, she joined the Wednesdays in Mississippi movement. Small groups of women made their way to Mississippi each week, bringing support and supplies to civil rights workers and Black families who were facing harassment and violence as they fought to end segregation. Hope in the Struggle co-author Carolyn Holbrook.

CAROLYN HOLBROOK: And she knew that it's very possible with all the violence going on down there that she wouldn't come back. She knew that and her husband, and her children knew it.

MARIANNE COMBS: Indeed, a school Johnson visited in Vicksburg was bombed later that same day. But the Wednesdays in Mississippi program was effective. It contributed significantly to the passing of the Voter Rights Act in 1965. In the late '60s and early '70s, Johnson turned much of her attention to education, working on the creation of an African-American studies department at the University of Minnesota. She was the first Black woman to serve on the University's Board of Regents. Hope in the struggle co-author Arleta Little.

ARLETA LITTLE: In the context of politics, in the context of education, in the context of the history of the state and housing legislation, Josie's love of Black people is manifest in so many areas of her work on behalf of her people.

MARIANNE COMBS: Little says Josie Johnson's life is a testament to what can be accomplished when a person uses what agency they have to help their community. Little says the secret to Johnson's strength is that it's grounded in love and kindness.

CAROLYN HOLBROOK: Which you don't often associate with power, that's not often what we recognize as being necessary for making change, to be tenacious and gentle-- I think that's an amazing quality of Josie's.

BARACK OBAMA: To Chairman Dean--

MARIANNE COMBS: Josie Johnson says one of her most cherished memories is attending the 2008 Democratic National Convention where, as Minnesota's superdelegate, she cast her vote to nominate Barack Obama as the Democratic Party's presidential candidate.

BARACK OBAMA: With profound gratitude and great humility, I accept your nomination for presidency of the United States.

JOSIE JOHNSON: What a moment, what a moment that'll go down in my memory book forever.

MARIANNE COMBS: At first Obama's election seemed like a crowning achievement for the civil rights movement. But it quickly became clear, says Johnson, that white supremacy was more deeply etched in the American psyche than anyone had realized. 10 years later, Johnson is frustrated by how much progress has been lost on so many fronts. She cites President Trump's undoing of many of Obama's rules and regulations and the increase in hate crimes against people of color. And despite all of her efforts on education, Minnesota still has one of the highest achievement gaps in the nation between white and Black students.

JOSIE JOHNSON: I try not to be discouraged. But I must admit I feel very troubled and worried about it and wonder do we have to go all over again.

MARIANNE COMBS: Johnson says when she feels hopeless, she draws on the strength and faith of her ancestors.

JOSIE JOHNSON: If our early ancestors could survive, then surely, I can continue to hold my head up.

MARIANNE COMBS: Johnson says she believes the Black community, because of all it has been through and learned in the process, can offer the nation a model for democracy and freedom, justice and opportunity. And that's something that will always be worth fighting for. Marianne Combs MPR News.

TOM CRANN: Josie Johnson's memoir, Hope in the Struggle, comes out April 9. It's published by the University of Minnesota Press.


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