Nellie Stone Johnson: 1905-2002

A legend passes: Nellie Stone Johnson
Craig Bares

The last time I spoke to Nellie Stone Johnson, she was talking about how she'd let her calendar get away from her just a bit: She was preparing a speech for a union function in north Minneapolis, working on a plan to overhaul the state university system, and plotting an end run around the DFL leadership. That was three years ago; she was 93, and no one who'd met her would have doubted that she was going to pull it all off, and then some. With seven decades in Minnesota politics--and that's politics in the good sense, the sense of being engaged with something messy and ugly, but also larger and more important than any one of us--she could put the fear of God into state senators and governors half her age. And she did.

Nellie Stone Johnson was a farm girl, an elevator operator, a union organizer, a businesswoman, an NAACP pioneer, and a counselor to Hubert Humphrey. She took pride in listing her ancestries as African American, Native American, and white, and in recalling how her father had hooked up with his Jewish neighbors to organize farmers during the Depression. Without her, Humphrey might not have had the courage to shame a segregationist national Democratic Party; without her, Minneapolis would not have had a civil-rights ordinance that--a national first--guaranteed all people equal rights in the workplace. She kept her friends honest and her enemies on their toes.

And, more than anything, she kept reminding anyone who would listen that there was almost no problem that good jobs couldn't fix. Poverty, urban decay, crime--it was all about working people (which, to her, meant most any of us) being able to make a living, with decency and with a say-so in their government. Fighting for jobs and decency meant being in politics, and staying in, even and especially when things got ugly. Late in life Nellie would say, without bitterness but with a disappointment that gave you chills, that race relations had grown worse than they'd ever been in her lifetime. And then she would turn around and get to work, trying to do something about it. When she died last week it was hard not to think of another famous rabble-rouser who, as she approached her 100th birthday some 75 years ago, told her friends to "pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living." --By Monika Bauerlein

[Editor's note: When Nellie Stone Johnson died last week at age 96, we prevailed upon former City Pages managing editor Monika Bauerlein to share her thoughts about Johnson and her legacy. Bauerlein, who toils these days as an editor at Mother Jones in San Francisco, kindly obliged. (If you're wondering about the source of Bauerlein's closing quote, you now have all the information you need.) Below, we've also reprinted what Johnson had to say when we asked her, as the world's calendars rolled over from 1999 to 2000, what single thing she'd change about the Twin Cities in order to make life better here.]

"It's very simple for me. It would be for equal opportunity for people of color in education and employment. There is such a big discrepancy here between white and black people in this. It seems like there's more training and concern given to each other by animals than what we do. I always come back to a job--everyone's got to have some way to work and make money to take care of themselves and their families, and that comes back down to having an education. We're just not doing the best we could for people of color in this regard, and that's a shame.

"I'm 94 years old now. I came off a farm here in Minnesota. My father was on the school board when we lived up in Pine County, and he had to do with the founding of the Farmer-Labor party--quite the radical! I cut my teeth on that, and on the ideas that work and having work gives a person dignity, and that everybody must have the means to make a living. So we've got to be providing a good education from very early on--in politics, in all kinds of economics, in the basics, and in every kind of discipline that teaches us how power works. When it comes to racial minorities and to women, this is where the weakness is today, even in labor unions. Between you and me, I'm probably the most computerless person around, but I can still put two and two together: I see the three or four generations below me, especially people of color, who really need some attention paid to their schooling and to their getting a fair go at real, decent jobs." --By Nellie Stone Johnson

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