Long-time St. Paul civil rights activist was there the day MLK inspired the nation

| September 24, 2020 | 0 Comments

As Josie Johnson of St. Peter Claver in St. Paul approaches her 90th birthday next month, she maintains her passion for civil rights and has a deep concern for young African Americans of today. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Josie Johnson was a young civil rights activist when she boarded a plane in 1963 headed for the March on Washington.

It was a whirlwind affair, with her and a contingent of Minnesotans landing in the nation’s capital just hours before the event, then hustling back to the airport for the return flight not long after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech echoed down the National Mall and reverberated across the country.

She reflected on that speech, and on decades of civil rights activism, on Aug. 28, the anniversary date of the march, which she recalls every year and commemorates in some fashion. This year, she chose to be interviewed by The Catholic Spirit about her experiences then and now, saying near the end, “Catholics have a lot of work that we can do” when it comes to racial justice and equality.

This is a proud African American woman, approaching her 90th birthday in October, who both absorbed the words of King and other civil rights leaders, and took her own turn at the microphone over many decades to add her voice to the conversation about race. Her demeanor offers a blend of grace and class, her gentle, Southern accent infused with both kindness and passion.

Now in the twilight of her days engaging in the struggle, she stands hopeful and nervous about the future of African Americans in the U.S. These conflicting emotions are encapsulated in a book she published in 2019, a memoir titled “Hope in the Struggle.” She is encouraged by some of the progress that has been made in her lifetime —   she helped bring about through involvement in advocacy organizations such as the NAACP and legislative issues like fair housing and education (see sidebar) — but worries that current tensions may have stalled the march to full equality that King envisioned.

She has a heart for young Black people today, holding them in her heart like she does her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. She wants young people of all colors to read her book and follow in her footsteps of stepping up and speaking out.

“I hope what they will do is look at just a plain, ordinary person who loves her community, her people,” said Johnson, a Houston native who still would be marching in today’s peaceful protests were it not for the risk of contracting COVID-19. “And, I hope what they will see is that a Black woman can indeed be engaged in the community and make a difference.”

She also wants to “encourage Black young people to be productive, creative, hopeful and to move forward.”

That’s what she was trying to do 57 years ago when she took her place in a crowd of about 250,000 gathered to march in Washington and hear speeches by civil rights leaders. King was the last to speak, and she noted that his remarks went beyond what he had planned to say.

On that “very hot day,” she and others from Minnesota, including Sen. Hubert Humphrey, were gathered near the Lincoln Memorial. As a co-chair of the Minneapolis NAACP, she helped organize the trip from Minnesota, and learned that there were threats made against the marchers in D.C. who were there to protest racial injustice that Blacks were continuing to endure despite legal and cultural shifts toward equality.

“We were urged to get out of D.C. as quickly as possible (after the march),” said Johnson, a long-time member of St. Peter Claver in St. Paul who once served as interim principal of the school. “And, that’s what we all did, immediately after the speech of Dr. King.”

Their quick departure, however, did not lessen the impact of all the speeches they heard that day, especially King’s.

“It was thrilling to hear this man,” Johnson recalled. “Mahalia Jackson, who was on the stage (singing gospel songs during the event), urged him to share with the gathering his dream about freedom, and love of peace and harmony. And, that’s when he shared his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. He had given portions of that speech to audiences at earlier times, but that day pulled everything (together) that he had said over time about Black people having a dream of freedom and liberation.”

Though she was in Washington for only a few hours, she called it “a day you don’t forget.”

“It was — as you can imagine — just an unbelievable, fast-moving, deeply spiritual, deeply felt moment,” she said. “And, I don’t think you realize that that is history being made, and you and your colleagues from Minnesota and all across the world are part of that historical movement.”

On the flight back home, Johnson and others from the Minnesota delegation already were planning “how we would follow that charge from Dr. King.”

So, 57 years after those immortal words were spoken, how does Johnson feel King’s vision has materialized? What is her assessment of a country still mired in racial tensions, exacerbated by the death of George Floyd May 25 and the ensuing protests and riots that have sprung up all across the country?

“We are not doing well,” she said, noting inequities in housing, employment and education, all sustained by attitudes going back to the time when African men, women and children were forcibly pulled by the thousands from their villages, put on ships and turned into slaves in a country called “the land of the free.”

“The struggle goes on,” she said, “in part, because when our ancestors were brought here from Africa as slaves … that became very deeply etched in the fabric of America. So, laws and policies and attitudes followed that rationale for abusing our ancestors and enslaving them. And, it still is there.”

What to do? The answer is rooted in what she witnessed in Washington nearly six decades ago and sometimes commemorates by picking up the transcript of King’s immortal words and reading it quietly in her St. Paul apartment.

“Honoring Dr. King today and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech needs to be the fuel that we need to ‘keep on keeping on,’ as my father would say, and just see what difference we can make for that young group of people you are looking at today, who are honoring (King’s legacy) and have worked hard to complete their education,” she said. “They need to know and feel that it really matters.”

One way to do that is to highlight the achievements of African Americans who have distinguished themselves in education and in their careers. Too often, Johnson said, media portrayals of Blacks are negative. Instead, media need to search out and shine a spotlight on what people in the African American community call “Black excellence.”

“We’ve got to show more examples of what’s positive and hopeful,” Johnson said. She noted that King was motivated to go to city after city by growing up in an atmosphere of “hope and inspiration.”

And, it’s what today’s young African American people need, she said.

“We have to reinvent that opportunity for our children to believe.”

Civil rights legacy

Josie Johnson’s involvement in the civil rights movement in the Twin Cities stretches back to the 1950s, shortly after she and her husband, Chuck, moved to Minneapolis. After meeting several influential African American civil rights activists in the Twin Cities, she was asked to join the board of the Minneapolis NAACP chapter. She later became co-chair and helped organize a trip to Washington, D.C., for the March on Washington in 1963.

Johnson also joined the League of Women Voters and became the first Black woman to hold an office on the Minneapolis board and the first to serve on its national board. She remained active in both the League and the NAACP, even while raising three daughters, the first of whom was born in 1954. She later got involved with the Minneapolis Urban League, and channeled her efforts to help in the areas of housing, education and health care. Along the way, she earned a doctoral degree in education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

She has continued engaging in the struggle for equality over the last six decades, becoming in 1971 the first African American to be elected to the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents after teaching courses in the African American Studies Program created in 1969. At a U of M event in her honor in 2018, she was called the “Harriet Tubman of our time,” according to a Minnesota Public Radio news story. She has met influential elected officials along the way, all the way up to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, the first African American to hold that office. He came to Minnesota in 2012, and she had her picture taken with him, a photo that appears in her 2019 book “Hope in the Struggle.”

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