Local Catholic recalls March on Washington, lifetime of activism

| August 28, 2013 | 0 Comments

Josie Johnson was in her early 30s and working for the Urban League in Minneapolis when she was called upon to attend the March on Washington in 1963.

She witnessed the stirring speech of the Rev. Martin Luther King, in which the words “I have a dream” became synonymous with the cause of civil rights for African-Americans.

Like the several hundred thousand in attendance on Aug. 28, 1963, she was inspired by Rev. King’s words. But, unlike most, she was able to meet him several times.

As a local activist in Minneapolis, where she attended St. Leonard of Port Maurice, Johnson, 82, who now belongs to St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, became intensely involved with civil rights efforts. That brought her in contact with King, who made visits to the Twin Cities in 1963 and 1967.

“My younger brother [James Robinson], who is a lawyer and was very much involved in housing and also issues of social justice, worked rather closely with Dr. King,” she said. “So, I had a chance to meet Dr. King on many occasions. . . . I was just awed by him because he was such a strong spiritual person and tried to keep us focused on the morality of the struggle. That impressed me deeply.”

Her mother was Catholic and her father was Methodist, and both set a strong example of how to put faith in action. Her dad got a job as a railroad dining car waiter, and he helped organize the workers into a union. Her activism continued when she and her husband Charles moved to Minnesota in 1956. For her, faith and civil rights activism go hand in hand.

“I can’t imagine anyone who really speaks about faith issues without having a sense of morality and justice,” she said. “That’s what our faith teaches us. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus was surely the model of exercising justice for the least of us. So, I can’t imagine anyone who truly feels that they are a spiritual person not being interested in the moral issues of social justice and fairness.”

One of the most encouraging things she has seen here in the Twin Cities is Archbishop Harry Flynn’s pastoral letter on racism, which he published in 2003. In it, he confronts what he calls the sin of racism and calls on all Catholics to “root out racism in the structures of our society and our church.”

Johnson wants all Catholics to embrace it.

“I think it’s time for our Church to recommit itself to the issues of justice and to the message of Jesus Christ, and that is to love your neighbor as yourself and to care about the least of these,” she said. “We have moved a very far distance from that as a society. And I pray our Church, which has a wonderful history of being concerned about its people, will take up that struggle and help us all remember to love each other, to care about our people, to be moral, to be just. Somebody has got to do it, and I think Catholicism is the vehicle to help us get back on track.”

She calls herself blessed to see the sense of justice alive in her parish and, particularly, in her pastor, Father Kevin McDonough. She said not a Sunday Mass goes by that he doesn’t touch on the subject of loving your neighbors, no matter the color of their skin.

“We see him as one of us, as a person who understands our issues,” she said.

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Category: This Catholic Life