Josie Johnson gathered petitions against the Texas poll tax as a teenager in 1945 and worked for the right to vote in Mississippi in the violent "Freedom Summer" two decades later.
Now, nearly a half-century after the Voting Rights Act was enacted to open the polls to all, the 82-year-old civil rights warrior is bringing those sad tales home to fight Minnesota's proposed photo ID requirement for voting.
"Our ancestors died, young children were punished, homes were bombed, churches were bombed," Johnson, the first black regent at the University of Minnesota, told a group of elderly voters, mostly black, at Sabathani Community Center last week. "People were denied the right that we take for granted. And we'll lose it, on Nov. 6, if we don't get out and vote no."
The linkage between Selma and St. Paul and between Jim Crow and photo ID has emerged as one of the hottest buttons in the debate over proposed changes in state election laws. Minnesota has become a flashpoint for this national debate, which has involved the Voting Rights Act of 1965, anti-fraud billboards in inner-city neighborhoods and a determined effort to link the ID fight to the civil rights movement.
ID supporters argue that requiring a card widely used for even the simplest transactions cannot be compared with the real, violent, racist voter suppression of the Old South.
One black conservative, Lucky Rosenbloom, a longtime supporter of photo ID, is speaking out to groups in favor of the law. He argues it will empower minority voters by granting free IDs and fuller participation in society.
"I see voter ID as being an extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act," he said, referring to the landmark legislation that outlawed discriminatory U.S. voting practices.
The proposed constitutional amendment that voters will see on the ballot Nov. 6 would require voters to show a government-issued photographic identification, would create a two-step system of provisional voting for those without the required ID and would tighten eligibility and identity requirements.
The color-blind measure, which would apply to all voters, is one of the year's most hotly contested ballot items. A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll taken in September showed 52 percent support for the concept, with 44 percent in opposition and 4 percent undecided.
Voting Act 'alive and well'
Studies of states where the laws are in effect have not shown a falloff in minority voting so far, but surveys by anti-ID groups argue that black and Latino voters are far less likely than white Americans to possess the needed ID card.
At the Democratic National Convention in September, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., himself a civil rights movement veteran, denounced the ID laws as a bald attempt to suppress the vote of minorities.
"I've seen this before!" he thundered. "I've lived this before!"
The Voting Rights Act is being redeployed to shoot down photo ID laws in Southern states that remain under federal oversight.
A three-judge panel ruled against a Texas photo ID requirement, saying it "imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas disproportionately likely to live in poverty." Similar litigation has been aimed at South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama.
"The Voting Rights Act is very much alive and well, at least when it comes to voter ID," said Doug Chapin, elections expert at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.
This month, activists in Midwestern cities took aim at billboards put up in inner-city areas that specify criminal penalties for voter fraud, saying the messages were intended to intimidate minority voters and ex-felons who can legally vote. Some billboards were removed.
These developments are part of a historical narrative for Johnson, whose résumé includes leading the Minneapolis Urban League, serving as a liaison to the city during civil rights unrest. The University of Minnesota created the Josie R. Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award in her honor.
"Texas had a poll tax law since 1903," she said, referring to the common Southern provision that charged people for the privilege of voting. A Texas native, she joined her activist father in gathering petitions to fight the tax, which remained in effect for another two decades. "That was an early continuation of the struggle that we as a people have had, just to be treated as legitimate human beings with the right to vote," she said.
In 1964, by then raising her family in Minnesota, Johnson was part of "Wednesdays in Mississippi," in which women of all races would visit the state to take testimony of people who still were being denied the right to vote.
She brings these memories up in speeches to groups and is particularly galled by the possibility that Minnesota would join the state that was a symbol of voter suppression in the 1960s.
"Mississippi is the only other state that has it in its constitution," she says. "Mississippi!"
ID proponents say the nation has changed since the South was in turmoil. A free ID could be a key to greater integration into society, they say. "If we can get out of this victim mentality, we could turn this whole thing around to a power movement for the next generation of minority voters," Rosenbloom said.
A subjective view
Whether voters see the issue as Johnson does or as Rosenbloom does may depend on how they view racial progress.
"The degree to which you think the Voting Rights Act is relevant to the question of voter ID depends on your view of whether or not the racial discrimination that prompted the Voting Rights Act is a thing of the present or a thing of the past," Chapin said.
Last week, Johnson, legislators on both sides of the issue and actors in the Guthrie Theater's play "Appomattox" held a discussion on voting rights, and interspersed debate over the amendment with scenes involving Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass in 1865 with those of Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights troubles a century later.
The historical figures were talking about the right to vote, as Minnesota is today. In addressing the gathering, Josie Johnson said the lessons of history cannot be ignored.
"We can't pretend that history isn't guiding our behavior today," she said.
Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042