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New documentary educates, inspires through the life of Minnesota activist Josie Johnson

It’s a real life story that reads like a novel, with twists, turns and cliffhangers, all told through the compelling voice of a woman who both witnessed and made history.


Produced by Twin Cities PBS, the inspiring new one-hour documentary “Hope in the Struggle – The Josie Johnson Story,”is an intimate salute to Johnson, the woman called ‘the First Lady of Minnesota Civil Rights.”


“She really is driving the story,” said Daniel Bergin, executive producer of the documentary, who interviewed the now 93-year-old great-grandmother in what he called an “intimate, sitting-at-her-feet storytelling style” and used her words and memories give shape to the film.


“This woman was a housewife but also an activist and educator who was in the rooms of power,” Bergin said. “She was behind the scenes with all these white men making it happen.  She also was in the boardroom and the conference room and the classroom.”


Bergin and his team unearthed a rich archive of historical film and photos from TPT’s collection to illustrate the seven decades of activism that mark Dr Johnson’s life.


It begins with her Depression-era childhood in the segregated south, then shifts to her arrival in Minneapolis in 1956, when she arrived as a young wife and mother when her husband accepted a job with Honeywell and immediately embedded herself in the push for voting, housing and civil rights in her new home.


The documentary goes on to follow Dr Johnson as she shaped  progress in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and beyond. Her key lobbying efforts at the State Capitol is credited with the passage of the nation’s first fair housing law in 1961. She attended the historic March on Washington in 1963, risked her own safety to travel to Mississippi to help register Black voters during the dangerous Freedom Summer and later became the first Black person to be a regent at the University of Minnesota.


A theme that emerges in all of her work was her consistent willingness to collaborate and build coalitions.


“She was the OG on allyship. She knew that is how we get work done, by connecting across color and class and party,” Bergin said. “We learn about her friends and allies. She is so gracious and magnanimous. She doesn’t take credit; she doesn’t want it, but she wants us to know how she did it.”


While Dr Johnson’s biography and accomplishments are chronicled in an objective style, Bergin and his team are brimming with admiration for Dr Johnson’s lifelong leadership and are burnishing her legacy.


Bergin sees her work as important and relevant encouragement for the next generation of leaders in the fight for racial justice.  He hopes viewers of the documentary will feel empowered to continue her groundbreaking efforts.


“The time is now. The work continues, the struggle continues, as Dr Johnson would say,” Bergin said. “She’s doing it for the babies and for us in our communities. It’s such a great template for what we still need to do.”


"Hope in the Struggle – The Josie Johnson Story" premiered on February 19 on TPT 2; it is available for streaming on the PBS App.

Photo courtesy of the University Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries.


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