In a spirited celebration of Minnesota civil rights icon Dr. Josie Johnson, a crowd of some 200 friends, colleagues, and admirers gathered at the Humphrey School of Public to hear of the school's plans to create a fellowship in Johnson's name and rename a community meeting room after her.

"I'd like us collectively to make certain that generations of students, faculty, and community partners continue to know of Josie's work and be inspired by her formidable leadership," said Humphrey School Dean Laura Bloomberg in announcing the Josie Robinson Johnson Fellowship, which will support graduate students at the School who have specific interests in addressing racial inequities and injustice.

Civil rights icon Vernon Jordan, a close friend of Johnson, said the fellowship is a fitting tribute to Johnson and her lifetime commitment to equity and justice, and to "the historical impact she has made at the University of Minnesota."

"While many things happening in our country are not normal, they also are not new," said Jordan. "And because we have been here before, we know what we need – more Josie Johnsons. This fellowship will give the next generation of Josie Johnsons the tools they need to keep fighting for the justice we all seek, and bring us closer to the world Josie has always been pushing us toward."

The event marked the launch of the campaign to raise $2 million to fund the fellowship. The school is also remodeling and renaming one of its meeting rooms after Johnson, to become a space that community organizations can use for public forums, planning sessions, and the like. A portrait of Johnson, which will hang in the room, was unveiled at the event.  

Johnson recently discussed her lifelong activism and connections to the University of Minnesota.

Humphrey: You have been an activist, promoting equality and inclusion, since you were 12 years old. And you haven’t stopped yet. Where does your motivation come from?

Dr. Josie Johnson: It comes from my upbringing. I grew up in a family that was very active in the struggle and that spirit is still in me. My parents graduated from a historically black college outside of Houston. Between them, they demonstrated to my brothers and me what was deep in them, without sitting us down, giving us lessons, telling us. We sort of watched and saw.

There was a tradition of doing, without feeling that you are necessarily making some great big thing out of it. The sense that we needed to be engaged in changing the system and society was just deeply etched in us. And I didn’t realize at the time that it was unusual.

I’m the oldest, I have two younger brothers. One brother went to law school and became the first African-American lawyer in the field of nonprofit housing. The other brother became the first Black councilman elected in Houston.

I think about my father, who wanted to be a lawyer but there were no schools who would accept a Black person in 1926. In a way, the family decided to honor him. My youngest brother was a lawyer, as well as his wife. My daughter Josie, my daughter Patrice, and my granddaughter are all lawyers. So it’s like they said, ‘Grandpa, we’re honoring you by following your dream.’

You were the first African-American to serve on the University’s Board of Regents. What was the significance of that milestone?

It was 1971, and Martin Sabo (who was a state representative at the time) was probably the first person to approach me about joining the University’s Board of Regents. The other candidate they were considering was a well-known president of a local bank, a conservative who had been very active in the community. But I was chosen instead.

I had always been engaged in issues dealing with faculty and students, but being in a policy-making role was different. My concern about African-American students, the curricular planning, the hiring of faculty – all of those were natural issues for me. So, for me to have been on the board and to chair or co-chair several committees was a big step for us as a people.

I maintain that if you’re not at the table, the things that you and your community are concerned about never get brought up, because the others may have never had that experience and they may not look at the issues in quite the same way as you do. They don’t have the level of understanding to bring those issues forward.

What are your hopes for the new Josie Robinson Johnson Fellowship here at the Humphrey School?

We need to encourage scholars who are thinking beyond the right here and now, who can review and assess what kind of laws, policies, and programs we need to have in our society that really offer freedom and full citizenship. I hope this fellowship will provide opportunities for scholars to think about how to do that, to come forward with creative ideas and test them in academic and community settings, to find ways of resolving some of these issues.

In order for you to overcome supremacy and try to change your thinking and behavior, you’ve got to understand how supremacy and racism are so entrenched in our society. My hope is that these scholars will be able to test methods of undoing all that the system has done.

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