Justice fighters dialogue across generations


Josie Johnson
Josie Johnson

On Friday, March 25, an intimate crowd gathered to have lunch with Dr. Josie Johnson and Lena K. Gardner. The event’s theme, “From Civil Rights to Black Lives Matter: Learning from Movement Leaders,” was hosted by 8th Ward Minneapolis City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden and held at Central Neighborhood Community Space.

Dr. Johnson, an educator and leader in the Civil Rights Movement, has worked tirelessly to effect legislative change related to fair housing and employment opportunities. Her impressive political background ranges from community organizer to mayoral aide to presidential campaign manager, just to name a few.

Dr. Johnson is a leader in education and has sustained an ongoing relationship with the University of Minnesota, where they have established the annual Josie Robinson Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award in her honor.

Lena K. Gardner is a leader in the faith community as well as a social justice champion. Gardner is a co-founding member of the Black Lives Matter Minneapolis chapter. She has helped organize a host of demonstrations and vigils following the police-involved shooting deaths of unarmed Black people around the country, including that of Minneapolis resident Jamar Clark.

The two women, who are generations apart, were brought together to talk full circle about the same struggles and the passion to continue the fight. Glidden (Minneapolis City Council vice president) opened the discussion with introductions and questions about how Johnson and Gardner approach their work and what motivates them.

However, during the conversation the discussion’s focus shifted to the division in the Black community between the elders and youth.

“I know the struggle and I appreciate what the youth have done,” said Johnson. “It is the youth in our country that have made things happen.” She referenced the Birmingham days in the years 1962-1964 when youth were willing to go to jail, being attacked by dogs and water hoses to make sure the realities of injustice were accurately displayed.

“Sometimes our children are ahead of the elders,” said Johnson. “What I find in the struggle is that we are observing our young people do and what they think they need to do to get justice and equality in the society. I think it is very important for us to understand how deeply etched in the fabric of America [White] supremacy and racism are, and how hard it is to try and get rid of it.

“In years and decades past, I think our elders have been more engaged in conversation and strategy with our young people,” continued Johnson. “I think that’s one of the things we have come to miss over time.

“Systems have created a division among us as a people. And when that happens, that there appears to be some that are heard and some that are not, it creates a division and takes a while for us to come together again.”

Dr. Johnson recalled her early days growing up, saying, “A lot of elders told me don’t mess up what we have tried to build. These are the things that work and these are the things that don’t.” Johnson said that line of communication is now missing.

“I think we are missing out on reaching our young people by asking, ‘How can we be helpful?’”

Lena K. Gardner
Lena K. Gardner

Gardner responded, “I think there has been missed opportunity in the Minnesota movement for working cross-generationally. A lot of it has to do with sexism and homophobia. We have eight people on our student committee, and six of us identify as queer Black women or trans and queer Black women.

“So you have some elders that support us and some that are not about that life,” Gardner continued. “I have had run-ins — and I’m not going to name names, because I refuse to fuel that fire — on instances of intense discrimination.

“So a certain part of us, as a younger generation, we feel wounded,” continued Gardner. “We want that support, and it is fought by a lot of division that comes out of White supremacy. There is a feeling that we don’t appreciate what has come before or that we don’t recognize it. And we do.”

With tears rolling down her face, Gardner concluded, “I don’t have it in me to fight our elders.”

“My heart is broken when our young people don’t feel protected,” said Johnson. “Our young people, who are representing a current historic need to see difference and they have not seen the difference that our ancestors thought we might be able to introduce in America, through the kind of care for justice and equality or the need to build.

“Most of our children don’t even know because today’s teachers and administrators and people in the community don’t know the values our ancestors placed on education, community organizing, working together, inviting people in to help educate our children.

“After the emancipation, the first things our people did were build schools,” said Johnson. “Not celebrate in the street. Klan comes along [and] burns them down, they go right back and build them again.

“That attitude about us is so deeply etched that every generation finds itself trying to correct the ills of justice, inequality and opportunity. So what we need to do is put our arms around our children and protect them.

“I don’t think that there is a difference in the struggle,” Johnson said. “There may be different strategies, but there is no difference in the objective. As long as our children feel we are not making progress, we will always have struggle, and they will always try to make a difference.”


Julia Johnson welcomes reader responses to jjohnson@spokesman-recorder.com.