A champion of the people: Josie Johnson still finds hope in the struggle

(Photo courtesy of St. Olaf College) Dr. Josie Johnson

Josie Johnson. The term “living legend” might well understate her stature in the community. She is a beloved lady with a warmhearted smile and serious political clout who has made history, indeed helped shaped it, as chronicled in her book Hope in the StruggleA Memoir (University of Minnesota Press).

On the dust cover of the memoir, Walter Mondale attests that Johnson “has always been a champion of fairness and decency, and this book shows us that while there is still work to be done, with her help, there will always be hope.”

Her friend and comrade Mahmoud El- Kati, Twin Cities historian, scholar and community griot, told Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder that Hope in the Struggle “is timely and it’s important. Many people are going to find it very, very useful because of the time and context she addresses.”

Just a partial listing of Johnson’s pedigree as a person of the people notes that she has remained active in civil rights since a teenager when she and her father canvassed to gather signatures on an anti-poll tax petition. 

In the early 1960s, Johnson professionally lobbied for fair housing and equal opportunity employment. A member of the Minneapolis Urban League, she served as acting director between 1967 and 1968, after which she became a legislative and community liaison as a mayoral aide in Minneapolis during a time of turbulent racial unrest that had swept America. She co-chaired Minnesota’s delegation to the momentous 1971 March on Washington.  

She is also a recipient of the Committed to the Vision Award from the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, and the University of Minnesota established the Josie Robinson Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award in her honor. 

In her living room, you can get a glimpse of how her life has spanned African American progress. On a wall there are artifacts from the Jim Crow era — signs reading, “Colored seated in rear” and “We serve colored carry out only.” And not far from an end table sits a framed photo of Josie Johnson and Michelle Obama together, radiantly smiling.  

Submitted photo

On June 27, Johnson enjoyed a book signing at UROC in North Minneapolis. “I was very happy to have an opportunity to [be] with our community,” she said, “and talk about what my team [Carolyn Holbrook and Arleta Little with whom she crafted the memoir] was trying to do in the book. That was the purpose.” 

Asked why, when, and how she came by her lifelong commitment to making a difference, Johnson said, “I grew up in an environment where it made a difference. My dad wanted to be a lawyer, but there were no schools for Black graduate students. 

“So, he became employed by the Southern Pacific Railroad and was a dining car waiter. He organized [fellow] waiters. Mother got involved in programs educating Black children, and I grew up with a community that believed in us as a people being engaged in the well-being of all.” 

That principle, a strong theme in Hope in the Struggle, is an abiding aspect of what she terms the “transition of values to future generations.” In the chapter “Making Our Way,” Johnson attests, “North Minneapolis was a close-knit community before the problems of the ’60s broke out. Just like the families of my childhood in Houston, North Side families knew and looked out for one another. 

“Neighbors knew the names of the children, whether they lived in the projects or in modest or middle-to-upper-class homes.” She goes on to note, “Black-owned barber shops and beauty salons, restaurants, bars and cafes, dry cleaners, grocery stores, and clothing stores thrived. The Givens Ice Cream Bar was also a mainstay in the community, owned by Archie Givens Sr. and his wife Phebe. Archie and Phebe grew up in North Minneapolis and remained there with their children while he grew his career as a real estate developer building new homes for Black families.”

Speaking with MSR, she added, “Our children need that, now. The sense of living in a close-knit community…talking to our kids about their history and who they are. Give them a sense of pride.” 

She added, “The society has created an environment now [that has] made Black adults afraid of their own. They don’t stop them in the street anymore to correct them when they’re doing something to misbehave. We have fallen into that trap.”

Johnson continued, “I had an experience that was so rewarding. I was on a department store escalator one time.  Three young Black ladies, girls, were talking in [foul] language. Not what this old lady wanted to hear. I said, ‘Young ladies, you are too beautiful to talk like that.’ They turned around, covered their mouths and apologized. Wasn’t that something? I wasn’t afraid of our children.”

Submitted photo (l-r) Carolyn Holbrook, Josie Johnson and Arleta Little

Johnson is troubled by the state of things not only for those children but the nation, period, since Barack Obama left office. In the Hope in the Struggle epilogue, she observes that today’s White House is far from a friend of social progress; in fact, it stands counter thereto. 

“Since his election, Donald Trump has defined his presidency in his own way. He has borrowed strategies from past presidents — for example, Nixon and Reagan — that fit his definition of his presidency. And in so doing, he has created a world of confusion.” 

Asked to expound on that point, she said, “Trump came in and said it was alright to be racist.  It’s alright to be sexist and treat women the way he did. Alright to make fun of people that are handicapped, have various disabilities.

“And America told him he was right. It elected him President of the United States. They still allow him to get away with that. That’s the harm he’s done to America. I wonder what that says to children still trying to develop a sense of right and wrong.”

To order purchase your copy of Hope in the Struggle: A Memoir, go to bit.ly/JosieJohnsonHope.