Josie Johnson, iconic Minnesota civil rights activist, on hope and her legacy

Black woman seated at table with white men
Josie Johnson was the first Black person to be appointed to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents in 1971. Her life and civil rights activism are the subject of a new documentary on Twin Cities PBS called "Hope in the Struggle."
Courtesy of the University Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries

When Josie Johnson talks about her monumental role in Minnesota’s civil rights movement, lobbying for fair housing, education and voting rights, she’s quick to credit the people around her.

“It was the working of the Black people before me who had set a stage for equality and justice, and for whom that work would benefit our children,” she told MPR News host Angela Davis.

But it’s hard to overestimate Johnson’s own legacy in making Minnesota better for everyone – and the mark she’s left on younger leaders in the Twin Cities and beyond.  

Johnson, 93, was honored Thursday at a yearly “History Makers at Home” event honoring Black community leaders at the Capri Theater in Minneapolis.

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And Johnson’s remarkable life is the subject of a new documentary, “Hope in the Struggle.” It premiered Monday and is streaming on Twin Cities PBS.

“Ultimately, it’s about using story to make change. And Josie has made change. Her story continues to make change,” Twin Cities PBS executive producer Daniel Bergin told Davis.

From a childhood in segregated Texas, Johnson moved to Minnesota in the 1950s and became active with the Minneapolis Urban League. She worked behind the scenes to pass Minnesota’s fair housing law, making housing discrimination based on someone’s race illegal in the state, well before it was prohibited under federal law.

She led the Minnesota group to the March on Washington in 1963 and advised the Minneapolis mayor when protests against police brutality and unequal education rocked the city in the 1960s. In the 1970s, she became the first Black person to sit on the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.

“I knew, instead of being a token, I felt that I was — I had this opportunity to bring to the table another perspective and point of view. So if others saw me as a token, I didn’t see myself that way. I saw that opportunity to make a difference, to have an impact, to have the voice of my people heard,” Johnson said in 1992 of her time on the Board of Regents.

Marc Watts is chief brand officer for the African American Leadership Forum in Minneapolis. He still lives by a phrase Johnson told him years ago: “Responsible activism empowers reform.”

“She talks about the people whose shoulders she stood on. We stand on her shoulders as we carry out this work,” Watts called in to say during the live show with Johnson and Davis. “She’s the closest thing we’ve seen to royalty for those of us who work in the civil rights and social cause space today.”

Two people pose to get their photo taken
MPR News Host Angela Davis (right) and Twin Cities PBS executive producer Daniel Bergin (left) pose in the Kling Public Media Center in St. Paul on Thursday, just after talking on air with civil rights activist Josie Johnson about the new documentary, "Hope in the Struggle," which drew from Johnson's memoir.
Nikhil Kumaran | MPR News

Shawntera Hardy, the former commissioner of Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development, echoed that sentiment about Johnson.

“One of the things that has been a guiding proverb for me in the work that I do is, ‘Listen to the whispers so you don't have to hear the screams,’” she said during the show. “And Dr. Johnson has always kept her ear to the ground for those that do not have seats at the table.”

Medaria Arradondo remembers seeing Johnson at his first press conference as the newly named Minneapolis chief of police in 2017. He was the city’s first Black police chief ever.

Johnson walked up to the podium and told the crowd of reporters to hold Arradondo accountable as chief — but to treat him fairly.

The comment stuck with him.  

“Every time that I was dealing with some of our darkest days in the city, I always looked to her in terms of her modeling style for leadership,” Arradondo said during the show. Arradondo served as chief until he retired in 2022.

“She always delivered hope in everything that she did. And she always tried to bring us together.”

Johnson said she hopes the Twin Cities PBS documentary can teach Minnesotans about the social conditions Black Minnesotans faced in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s as they continue the fight for freedom and justice today.

“I am perhaps idealistic, as some of my friends believe I am. But I think the history of our ancestors, the struggle that our ancestors have experienced, and continue to work, and to continue to preach a sermon about us, and to remind the world of who we are, and from whence we come,” Johnson said.

“Nothing beats that.”


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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.