OPINION | Josie Johnson is worried about America


The job of editing a newspaper entails certain compromises and the occasional pangs of conscience. At the top, I want to repeat something from the editorial in the previous edition: “The constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage is purely an expression of bigotry. Perhaps this type of bigotry, denying the civil rights of gays and lesbians in committed relationships, finds support in various religious ideologies; it’s still bigotry.”

In this issue of the AJW, our “Elections 2012” special section includes articles from Orthodox rabbis endorsing the marriage restriction amendment. It is the American Jewish World’s policy to be open to contending viewpoints; at the same time, I would like to apologize to our gay, lesbian and straight readers who might be offended and appalled by the defenses of the marriage amendment printed herein.

On a more positive note, in the run-up to the 2012 elections, I met a remarkable Minnesotan last week: Josie Johnson, who came to the Twin Cities from Houston, Texas, in 1956. She is a lifelong crusader for civil rights, who has been working closely with members of Jewish community in various struggles.

She is working now to re-elect President Barack Obama and to defeat the voter suppression amendment on the Minnesota ballot. I connected with Johnson last week, and she consented to an interview on Friday. She seems to have a very busy schedule. She turned 82 earlier this month.

Since Johnson was wearing a button reading, I OPPOSE VOTER ID, that seemed like a good starting point for our chat.

“My father and I started campaigning against the poll tax law in Texas, in 1945,” she explained. “So I’ve been looking at this issue of the right to vote all of my life. That has a lot to do with my reaction right now, in 2012, to the effort in Minnesota, and in other states, to restrict the vote; because we worked so hard to get the right to vote.”

Going further back in Johnson’s ancestry, the online African American Registrynotes that her “great-grandfather Ralph was 12 years old when emancipation from slavery was granted. As a child, he was employed to furnish a stepstool for white women to use as they stepped down from carriages and stage coaches in Texas.”

Of course, we celebrate our freedom from bondage at Passover each year; in Johnson’s family the stories of enslavement are more recent. And Johnson was part of the effort to topple Jim Crow, the system of racial segregation in the American South.

She mentioned traveling to Jackson, Miss., in 1964, with a racially integrated delegation of women that included Maxine Nathanson, a leader with the National Council of Jewish Women. This was “Freedom Summer,” and the group of Minnesota women went south to observe voter registration efforts.

The delegations that went to Jackson were coordinated by Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women and a “national figure” in the Civil Rights movement. Johnson said that Height helped organize the 1963 March on Washington — where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The women — black and white, Christian and Jewish — traveled to Mississippi in 1964, and investigated the voter rights situation and brought information back to their communities. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which was spurred on by grassroots activists.

Johnson initiated the topic of Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement, a strand of American Jewish history of which we all should know more and teach diligently to our children.

“The thing that I am so happy to have a chance to share with you is that the Jewish community and the African American community have always been very close allies — forever,” she said.

Johnson mentioned that members of Temple Israel, including the late Rabbi Max Shapiro, were always supportive of her civil rights activism. “I’ve had this interconnectedness with the Jewish community all of my adult life.”

In the early 1960s, Johnson was the chief lobbyist for fair housing legislation in Minnesota. “One of the people who worked closely with me as a lobbyist was Zetta Feder, who was a very close friend, and our families did things together…. Her husband, Harold, died a few years ago.”

Johnson also mentioned that Louis and Beverly Smerling were friends and colleagues early on. “I am really blessed to have that kind of relationship… We were able to sit and talk about things; and unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be easy with many people in our society today, to just sit and talk and try to be clear about each other’s positions.”

Johnson said that her relationship with the Jewish community continues, and she commended the efforts of Vic Rosenthal, executive director of Jewish Community Action, “and others” opposing the voter ID amendment.

“Justice and fairness is the mission,” which guides the activism of Johnson and her allies in our community. As Minnesotans go to polls and confront an amendment to the state constitution that would restrict voting, we should consider Josie Johnson’s experience and viewpoint. We should remember that many individuals paid in blood to gain the right to vote in the South during the 1960s. I mentioned the murder of the three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner by members of the Ku Klux Klan, in Neshoba County, Mississippi. When Johnson, Nathanson and their colleagues went down to Mississippi, the authorities were still searching for the three young activists. It was 44 days after the trio went missing that their bodies were found in an earthen dam near the murder site.

The Civil Rights campaigners, including Johnson, were courageous people, American heroes. Standing up for the rights of African Americans in the South some 50 years ago was dangerous work. There are many martyrs to the cause of equality.

I also should mention that Johnson suffered a great personal tragedy in 1989, when her daughter, Patrice Johnson, who was the chief of staff for Texas Congressman Mickey Leland, perished with her boss and 14 others in a plane crash in Ethiopia. Out of that calamity, Johnson and many others established the Leland-Johnson Common Vision program, which brings together African American and Jewish high school students to dispel stereotypes, promote understanding and develop new leaders in the ongoing fight against racism and anti-Semitism. The Jewish World looks forward to writing more stories about this important program, which serves to promote the legacy of Patrice Johnson, Mickey Leland and others who were dedicated to human uplift and equality.

The story of Josie Johnson’s inspiring life cannot be fully told in this limited space. In the context of the 2012 elections, Johnson said that she never imagined that the U.S. would elect a black president in her lifetime. Now she is concerned by the fierce racial backlash that has ensued.

She is aghast that the Republicans in Congress have declared that their main goal is wrecking the Obama presidency. “They would rather take the country down and create all kinds of attitudes about a black man,” she commented. “I didn’t realize how little respect they would have for a leader of the country… the president of the United States.”

A frightening strain of racism undergirds the demonization of Obama, according to Johnson. She points to the repellent tactics of the Tea Party, a largely white movement that cannot countenance the legislative successes — such as the passage of the health care reform bill — of the Obama administration.

Johnson said that she is “greatly disappointed and sad to know that your ancestors and mine have worked so hard and so long for justice,” and then when we think that we have achieved a just society that has elected a black man as president, “and instead we have elected a black man and have put America in the downward spiral ever since.”

And she sees racism behind the current ballot measures to restrict voting rights; in Minnesota, voter ID is the new poll tax. Johnson pointed out that voting rights, for African American men, go back to President Lincoln and the 13th Amendment; however, individual states passed laws to disenfranchise black voters, which led to the passage of 1965 Voting Rights, 100 years later.

It would be nice to think that Josie Johnson could relax in her old age; but she apparently is not slowing down in her efforts to defeat voter suppression “and to re-elect our president.” In 2012, the stakes are high for protecting this nation’s freedom and democracy.

The struggle continues and Josie Johnson needs the Jewish community’s help again.