Keeping hope alive can’t be easy this holiday season for anyone who longs for a larger measure of racial justice and understanding in these dis-United States. My circle includes a number of such discouraged souls.
That’s why several copies of the 2019 memoir “Hope in the Struggle” have been tucked under my Christmas tree, and why I count myself lucky to have spent time recently with its wise author, Minnesota civil-rights matriarch Josie Robinson Johnson.
Johnson has ample reason to wallow in discouragement, were she so inclined. She has spent most of her 89 years — 51 of them in Minnesota — pursuing justice and opportunity for Americans, especially those who, like her, are descendants of African-American slaves.
She’s seen very personally how deep-seated and persistent racial bias is, even in liberal Minnesota. For example: Her book describes the extraordinary effort she made in 1961 as chief lobbyist for a state law banning discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. Johnson shrewdly enlisted the help of Republican Gov. Elmer L. Andersen in getting the stalled Fair Housing Act moving in the Conservative (Republican) state Senate, where its chief sponsor was state Sen. Don Fraser, the future DFL congressman and Minneapolis mayor. That bill’s passage is hailed as a landmark achievement in Minnesota civil-rights annals.
Twenty-five years later, Johnson returned to Minnesota after a 12-year hiatus that included completion of a Ph.D. in education administration from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a stint as chief of staff to Lt. Gov. George Brown of Colorado, the nation’s first African-American lieutenant governor since Reconstruction. She was on her way to a series of senior administrative posts at the University of Minnesota. Johnson’s good friend and fellow activist Katie McWatt
of St. Paul drove her to inspect several rental properties in the Twin Cities.
“Time after time, the properties that landlords had told me on the phone were available somehow weren’t any longer when I arrived,” she wrote. “More and more, I realize that … the views the majority culture holds [about race] are so deeply etched into their fabric that no law we can pass will change them.”
So the quest for racial justice is futile?
No, Johnson says. It requires a different tactic. To be sure, the legal gains made a half-century ago need to be protected — and when they are eroded, as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, they need to be restored through political action.
But Johnson holds that what laws could not accomplish on their own, individual Americans can achieve through open conversation — lots and lots of intentional, uncomfortable, honest conversation about race in America. The 2020 election year affords an opportunity for such encounters, Johnson said, and people and organizations of goodwill ought to seize it.
“Whenever there’s a sense that we need some open conversation, when people who don’t come from my story want to better understand and contribute to a more just society, there’s reason for hope,” Johnson said.
Johnson is a great believer in the power of relationship-based leadership, and an exemplar of it. Only in the warmth of relationships made through genuine conversations can hostility and mistrust melt, she says. Only when new ideas and information are delivered in the context of familiarity and trust can those ideas be absorbed.
What should Americans be talking about next year?
“So many have been taught so well, so deep, for so long, that slavery is all over the world — that it’s the normal way of things. It’s important for us all to know that the slavery Americans experienced was different because it was race-based, and that in order for people to justify their discriminatory actions, they had to construct a false belief system about who was human and who was not. I don’t think you can abuse people day in and day out and remain sane, unless you create a justification for it.”
When that historic justification is examined in the context of here-and-now relationships, it collapses, Johnson attests. She’s seen it happen.
She knows that in calling for more honest dialogue about race, she’s asking a lot of reserved Minnesotans. Though she grew up in Houston and was educated at Fisk University in Nashville, first-person pronouns come naturally when she says of Minnesotans: “We’ve been taught you don’t do that — you don’t talk about things that make people uncomfortable.”
She’s also well-aware of a Minnesota (newspaper columnist’s) tendency to claim that this state is less afflicted by prejudice than other places. Look again, she gently urges.
“When I arrived here in 1956, this was one of the highest-academic-achieving states in the nation for people of color. But as we grew in numbers, we became like any other state, then worse. We have evolved into a people who are influenced by national figures who are creating fear for their own gain.”
Johnson sees one such figure in today’s White House, and she is fervently hoping for his replacement. But the hope that keeps her speaking and working for racial justice in her 90th year does not rest in the next election or a different president. She draws hope from more reliable sources, she says.
She sees the fruits of hope in the story of her ancestors — how people violently uprooted from West Africa built a new identity as they toiled in forced labor. How they rushed to build schools and churches when emancipation came. How her great-grandfather, born into slavery, taught himself to read and write and became a minister. How the optimism and hard work of her grandparents led to a college education for her parents, and how education served her and her children.
“Hope is what we as a people come from,” she said. She was referring to her own family, but the words ring as true for this state and nation.
“Hope is a choice you make,” she said. It’s more about discipline and determination than sentiment. “You see hope’s value and you hold onto it, and pass it on so each generation continues to believe that a better life is possible. We can’t go forward without it.”
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at email@example.com.
“Hope in the Struggle,” by Josie R. Johnson with Carolyn Holbrook and Arleta Little, is published by University of Minnesota Press.