Over 50 years ago, Josie Robinson Johnson led the Minnesota delegation to the March on Washington, D.C., knowing that they would be part of history and aware of the great personal risk they were taking. Johnson has spent her career as a risk taker, a trailblazer, a champion for equality, and, importantly, a role model for public policy students as they seek to follow in her formidable footsteps.
This week, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs solidified her life’s work as an ongoing model for generations of students by dedicating a community room at the school in her honor and establishing a fellowship in her name.
Johnson’s legacy as a leader in the civil rights movement began as a teenager when she and her father gathered signatures on an anti-poll-tax petition in Houston, Texas.
Living in Minnesota since the 1950s, Johnson, Ed.D., has launched numerous mentorship programs for young people of color, developed fair housing and employment programs, led community development and revitalization efforts, and counseled countless leaders across the community, including mayors, governors and university presidents. Johnson has served as the acting director of the Minneapolis Urban League, and is the first African-American appointed to the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents. She also led the U of M’s minority affairs and diversity efforts. In 1998, the university established the Annual Josie Robinson Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award in her honor.
During our celebration of Johnson, another civil rights icon, Vernon Jordan, delivered the keynote, calling her “[T]he Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman of our time.” He added that, “We live in perilous times, when the progress we have seen in our lifetime is under threat. While many things happening in our country are not normal, they also are not new. Our present is an extension of our history, of that ancestral struggle for freedom. And because we have been here before, we know what we need: more Josie Johnsons.”
Without a doubt, Johnson has made an indelible imprint on our nation, and I am proud that the Humphrey School is commemorating her contributions. To see her interact with Humphrey School students, to watch as a simple, sincere handshake from this living legend can spark action, is truly a sight to behold. Here’s what students who have spent time with Johnson tell us: Every interaction with her is memorable. Her words cut through cynicism and negativity, taking root in one’s imagination, and igniting a passion to change the world.
Our school’s namesake, Hubert Humphrey, once said, “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate.” My dream is for the Josie R. Johnson Community Room to become a public gathering place where those difficult conversations happen. This soon-to-be-remodeled gathering space will become a spacious and welcoming forum for advancing Johnson’s work advocating for human rights and social justice.
Similarly, the Humphrey School’s new Josie Robinson Johnson Fellowship will provide support to outstanding full-time graduate students who have a specific interest in addressing racial inequities and injustices. Josie Robinson Johnson Fellows will be encouraged and empowered to innovate; to take bold risks to create, test, and promote new approaches to seemingly intractable racial problems.
The imperative to stand up for equality is never over. When we care to look, every day we will see instances of inequity taking place across our great nation — a sad reminder that while we have come a long way, there remains much more work to do. I can only hope that these Fellows will fully embrace the opportunity to build upon Johnson’s legacy and continue her work addressing inequality, eliminating barriers to opportunity and ensuring everyone has the chance to succeed.
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