cover image Nellie Stone Johnson: The Life of an Activist

Nellie Stone Johnson: The Life of an Activist

Nellie Stone Johnson, David Brauer. Ruminator Books, $23 (256pp) ISBN 978-1-886913-35-6

Nellie Stone Johnson is a major force in Minnesota and national politics. In this lucid oral history from Brauer, the Minnesota correspondent for Newsweek and the Chicago Tribune, she modestly reflects on her campaign during most of the 20th-century to improve educational and job opportunities and health care. Johnson recounts her prosperous farm beginnings with a father who organized other farmers in the face of corporate greed, racism and regionalism. One of eight children, she explains the credo of her clan, which refused to be rigidly defined simply by being African-American, as evidenced by her father's involvement in progressive and New Deal politics (largely defined by white, Southern Democrats) at a time when most African-Americans still voted for the party of Lincoln. Influenced by her father's activism, Johnson later became a union organizer, enduring two failed marriages that fell victim to her single-minded devotion to her work. She commends FDR's administration for the commitment to end federal discrimination, but openly admits that racism played a major role in her own decision not to run for Congress. After her union pals ousted her from office because of her left-wing leanings, she became a seamstress while retaining an abiding interest in politics. Age did little to slow her down as she swapped ideas with Thurgood Marshall, served a long stint with the Democratic National Committee from 1979 to 1988, toured Africa and battled with white feminists over the inclusion of women of color in the ERA fight. Brauer skillfully conveys the story of an inspiring and noble woman, still active in her 90s, who has made every minute of her life count. (Mar.)