[Editors’ note: Nellie Stone Johnson will be unknown to most Counterpunch readers, but she was one of the 20th century’s great unsung lefty heroes. A lifelong labor and civil rights warrior who died in Minneapolis last week at 96, Johnson started her career in politics by distributing Nonpartisan League pamphlets by horseback as a child; for over 70 years she was one of the Upper Midwest’s most tireless fighters for civil and economic rights. Her memoir, The Life of an Activist, is available at Amazon by clicking here.]
This morning I sat around watching it rain outside and trying to cull some signal moment from the many hours I spent with my friend Nellie Stone Johnson, the labor/civil rights legend who died April 2 at the age of 96-some little story that might sum her up for purposes of a remembrance like this. But there isn’t any. She was too thoroughly a force of nature for that. According to the terms of an old Jewish parable, the student travels from afar not to hear the great rabbi interpret the Talmud but to watch him tie his shoes. So it was with Nellie. She wore who she was and where she had been in her every aspect: the sharp, graceful lines of her face, the easy dignity with which she carried herself, the burning clarity and urgency in her voice. If you had any sense, you simply drank it in whenever the chance presented itself.
I first met Nellie in 1990. She phoned me at City Pages one day out of the blue to say that she liked the things I had been writing and we ought to meet. The truth is I’d never heard of Nellie Stone Johnson. I had no idea this woman had made more history than anyone else still alive and kicking round here. Nonetheless, something in her manner precluded my saying no. We met for lunch, and after talking for an hour or so she gave me my second directive: “I think you might want to interview me for a story in your paper.” I did as I was told.
During those years at City Pages, she became a mentor to several of us on staff-Monika Bauerlein, Jennifer Vogel, me. And in having her way with us she could be as dogged and as demanding as she ever was in confronting foes. Many was the time the phone rang at 2:00 on Tuesday afternoon, a couple of hours from press deadline, to disgorge Nellie from the other end, primed for her one of her pack-a-lunch lectures on some piece of skullduggery she was trying to bring to light. It didn’t matter that you had heard this one before and had more pressing things to do; you listened, and it was always worth as much time as it required.
Within a couple of days of her passing, both the Minneapolis and St. Paul papers published long, glowing tributes. I read them with faint distaste. It’s in the nature of obituaries to domesticate whatever they seek to memorialize; saint and scoundrel alike turn cuddly in death’s embrace. So let us say it one last time, with emphasis: Nellie Stone Johnson did not like to be called a lady or a liberal. Despite her extensive involvement in practical politics-she visited the Capitol more than some legislators-Nellie remained a radical, as the Pioneer Press correctly noted, a former member of the Young Communists League, the Young Socialists, the Socialist Workers Party, and several other hard-line labor groups. She was a fighter from first to last. But she was never content to be a marginal character. Nellie helped midwife the merger of the Democratic and Farmer-Labor parties in 1944. Much later, at an age when most people are retired, she served a stint on the Democratic National Committee. Her radicalism ensured that she always had far more enemies than friends; these included the establishment civil rights organizations, a sizable number of liberal middle class feminists, and anyone else from either party who would neglect or subvert the hard-won gains in labor and civil rights she had given her life to.
After she died everyone took pains to say that even her enemies respected her, as if that meant a damn thing. I can tell you for the record that she had no use for their reverence; she saw it for the patronizing flip-off it was. All her life she was wise enough to stay clear of the clutches of anyone who might disarm her. That is why she passed up the countless political jobs and other bits of patronage that could have been hers across the years. She sacrificed enormously and without complaint, continuing to operate her seamstress shop on Nicollet Mall well past the age of 85, until finally she could not walk up the stairs anymore.
But then again it hardly amounted to sacrifice in her eyes. She was exactly where she wanted to be. As Walter Mondale put it, with affection and perhaps a little discomfiture, she was a tough old bird. Unlike so many leaders of the civil rights movement, Nellie had no real use for the church. She respected its political contributions but harbored no affinity for musings about God. “I just figured it was real simple,” she told me once. “You do what you can for people and you don’t worry about God.” I doubt she’d have called herself an atheist; that would imply too much attention to the question. She was an Enlightenment rationalist to her core. Her whole ideology could be nailed down with two planks-the value of education and the dignity of a decent job.
“She was so incredibly generous,” Jennifer Vogel wrote me a couple of days later, “but she wouldn’t have seen it that way. She fought because that was the only thing a decent, seeing person could do. I also liked how she gathered soldiers along the way. She saw the best in those who were trying to do good. She was forgiving of weakness, though I’m not sure she truly understood it. She looked past whatever your particular fears were and tried to nurture your strengths.”
Nellie’s public life was everything to her, and that is where she sought and found her friends. She eventually abandoned any pretense to traditional domesticity after her second failed marriage and toiled on by herself for another 50 years, a life odyssey that surely befitted one so indefatigable and so fiercely unsentimental. If she were reading this I imagine she’d say about now, That’s all very well; you wrote some nice things. But if I was your teacher, then what is it I taught you? All right then. Call this the short list.
Do the legwork. Know your history. Concern yourself with others, always. Stay busy and you will stay as close to selfless as possible. Keep your own counsel; be beholden to no one. Be proud of what you do. Let good faith be its own reward. Remember that regret wastes time. Keep on.