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Civil Rights Leader Josie Johnson Speaks at Bethel About Black History Month

Convocation Chapel Series “Faith in the Public Square” Opens with Civil Rights Leader Josie Robinson Johnson, Ph.D.

Bethel’s “Faith in the Public Square” Convocation series opened in February with Josie Robinson Johnson, Ph.D., a leader in the civil rights movement for six decades, who spoke in Chapel about the significance of Black History Month for every American.

Johnson, who started in the equality movement as a teen collecting anti-poll-tax signatures, later fought against the voter identification movement and became one of Minnesota’s most celebrated civil rights leaders. She thanked the student worship team for their musical selections, especially “No Longer a Slave,” pointing out that “Not being a slave to fear is an important theory that needs to be put into practice by all of us.”

Connecting Bethel’s mission statement and Black History Month, she told the audience that “The need to observe and learn the history of African-American people is as great today as any time in America’s history.” She stressed that Americans must learn and discuss that history in order to fully understand the issues going on in our nation today, which are the result of justifying slavery and other oppressive behaviors. “I don’t believe human beings can abuse other human beings without justifying that treatment,” she explained, noting that the slave owners who oppressed her ancestors truly believed African men and women were inferior to them. An example of that attitude is the fact that often, when slaves were ill, veterinarians were called instead of medical doctors. Similarly, she pointed out, white people used Bible verses to justify their beliefs and believed that their inhumane treatment of African-Americans was appropriate.

Johnson said that the origins of Black History Month—started by Carter G. Woodson and others—came out of the belief that education was emancipation and emancipation was education. As such, these pioneers strived to build schools and educate African-American youth because “they believed you couldn’t be free unless you were educated, and that voting represented true citizenship.”

She advocated that students begin an honest discussion with one another to “unlearn” what has been taught in American history classes, encouraging Bethel community members to overcome the “Minnesota nice” that leads us not to talk about difficult topics. “Get at the answers so that your children and your children’s children can purge the teaching that was so carefully woven into our fabric,” she urged. Johnson has done more than just talk about education. While she spent most of her career as an activist, she recently served as a high school principal, working mostly with African-American youth. 

“Be courageous. Ask the questions. Listen to the responses,” she told the audience. “Find your place because you deserve it, and I, as your elder, need that.”

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