A lifetime of leading

A conversation with civil rights champion Dr. Josie Johnson

Dr. Josie Johnson in her Loring Park condominium. Credit: Photo by Sarah McKenzie

Inspired: Profiles and conversations featuring notable Minneapolitans. 

Dozens of boxes line a dining room wall in Josie Johnson’s Loring Park condominium filled with material documenting a lifetime of civil rights work.

She has been organizing her archives by decades for a book project in its early stages reflecting on her extraordinary life. Known as the First Lady of Minnesota Civil Rights, Johnson, 84, arrived in Minnesota in 1956 with her family and quickly got involved in local civil rights work, including lobbying for fair housing and equal employment opportunities for African Americans.

She later became the acting director of the Minneapolis Urban League and was the first African American appointed to the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents in 1971. She led efforts to focus on diversity at the university while serving as an associate vice president for academic affairs in the 1990s.

The University of Minnesota has since established the Josie R. Johnson Award in her honor, which recognizes University of Minnesota faculty, staff and students who have demonstrated a strong commitment to human rights and social justice.

Johnson first got involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a teenager in Houston, Texas, by helping her father organize a petition drive aimed at eliminating the state’s poll tax, which disenfranchised black voters.

She earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and went on to earn advanced degrees at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

She has been honored with many accolades over the years. Mayor Betsy Hodges recognized Johnson with a mayoral proclamation May 23, 2014 and declared it “Dr. Josie R. Johnson Day” in Minneapolis at a community celebration at Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center in Loring Park.

Earlier this year she received the first-ever Lifetime Local Legends award presented by General Mills and UNCF at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast.

Now a great-grandmother, she remains an important mentor for her family and many in the community. Here are highlights of a recent interview with Johnson.

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Q: Who have been key mentors for you in your life?

My parents, first off all. My father was a very active citizen in Houston and graduated from college in 1926. My mother was a very compassionate social worker and educator, and she graduated from college in 1929. They both modeled for me and my brothers, service — it never occurred to me that you get rewarded or acknowledged for your service. That’s what you do.

My father was very active in many things in our community. If he didn’t show up on time for dinner, we would say, ‘what night was it?’ You’d know it was the YMCA or the Urban League. He wanted to be a lawyer when he graduated from college. In 1926 in Texas, and in the South, there wasn’t a school that he could attend so he became involved in political work. He organized dining car waiters because he took a job with the railroad as many black men did in those days.

My dad was very active in that and in politics. He helped organize the Urban League in Houston. So we grew up with that kind of sense that you had work to do and you had a responsibility.

Q: How old were you when you got involved in civil rights work?

We were very involved in collecting petitions to do away with the poll tax in Texas. That was maybe around 1945. I was 14 or 15 years old. So I went with him in the political precincts, collecting signatures to try and petition Texas to stop demanding poll tax and stop preventing us from voting.

Q: What was that experience like?

In the community where we were, there wasn’t any opposition to signing petitions. My father experienced some reaction on the part of white American in Houston, but it didn’t seem to affect us. …

We tried to get [the petitions] before the Legislature in Texas and governor, and it just didn’t matter because they weren’t interested in doing away with the poll tax. Texas started the poll tax in 1902 and it lasted until the Voter Rights Act in 1965. They weren’t very happy with that and tried every way they could to ignore the order for voter rights.

Q: What is your advice for young people involved in civil rights work today  — groups like Black Lives Matter?

Protests and movements are part of our history as a people. After emancipation of our ancestors, our people organized to create schools and to create systems of learning because they were very committed to education. …

Organizing with a purpose has always been part of our history. What our young people and whole communities throughout the country are trying to do is once again try to encourage conversation and awareness — a sense of historical understanding. I think the organizing of people to say black lives matter is very important because I think we’ve gone through a period where society may need to be reminded that we are a people whose lives matter. We need to stop and try to understand what has gone on all of these years that creates an attitude that treats our young people as if their lives don’t matter. Why is that?

The fact that there is such a diverse group of people protesting, my hope is that it will reverberate throughout the society so that question can be addressed. Black lives matter — what does that mean? Let’s try to get at that core and understand why we need to ask the question.

I think [Black Lives Matter organizers] are doing what movements have always done, and that’s to try to bring people together to ask the questions, and to try to address and find answers to those questions. The sadness of it is that society never quite seems to stop long enough to examine the question, and then try to come forward with some solutions that can protect our children and try to change systems in a way that reflects an understanding of who we are.

Q: Are there certain memories and accomplishments from your civil rights work that you especially cherish?

Nothing I have done has been done by me alone. I was blessed to have models before me — my parents and my community that believed in us and supported us. … I think having that kind of undergirding as a human being allowed me to do things that I was blessed enough to find that needed doing.

When we moved to Minnesota in 1956, there was still opportunity to do things that made a difference. To be able to work for fair housing and get it accomplished. We had the assistance of Gov. Elmer Andersen, a Republican governor, but a very compassionate, human being, to assist in that by responding to my fear — ‘Governor, we’re going to lose this. It’s not going to get out the of judiciary committee.’ The governor wrote a note to the members of the judiciary committee to say: ‘Let that bill out of committee and give it its chance.’ At that time, in 1960, many [legislators] had never spoken to an African American — let alone an African American female.

I was also blessed to be on the Board of the Regents at the University of Minnesota. That was a very important learning experience — one that was also a good eye opener as to what our great institution was all about. … I feel very blessed to have been in an environment to know how the system works and how to help it be the best it can be. What I hope to talk about in a book is an effort I felt I was engaged in — helping the University honor diversity. That was an important step for me. Lots of work needs to be done.

Q: What advice do you have for young community organizers today? How can they remain optimistic?

What’s been my hope has been our youth. It is the youth that turned out (for the election) in ’08, but they didn’t in ’10, ’12 or ’14. What happens is that our youth need to understand the length of history — and they need to understand how long it takes for things to change.

Now we have a lot of organizations in Minnesota and a lot of young people who are hardworking and committed — they need to remain hardworking and committed and to keep trying to bring in others. They need to stay focused long enough to show people that that kind of commitment and tenacity works.

Our young people get discouraged. Everything is so electronic these days — it happens right here, right now. We need not to discourage technology — I don’t mean that. I think we need to figure out how to make it work in ways that sustain a democracy.

I think we need to have our young people move away from the screens, to look on either side and ahead, to see where the people are and what’s going on, and how they can convert this system into a truly functioning system.