Mary Johnson’s voice was heard

The following are excerpts from the article in the New Haven Independent. Our thanks to Joan Cavanagh for working on this tribute. The full article can be read at www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/obituaries/entry/mary_d._johnson_95.

The white-haired schoolteacher was always polite when she confronted politicians, business leaders, or anyone else standing in the way of social justice. She didn’t yell at them.

She did press her case. And she didn’t let up. She was a fixture of New Haven protest politics for a half century, back to her days demonstrating against the Vietnam War and getting jailed in the 1970 city teachers strike. Since then she has marched against foreign military interventions, for a nuclear freeze, against military contracting, for striking workers and union-organizing drives, and for racial justice and preserving downtown bus stops, among many other causes….

Mary Johnson’s family was an important part of her life, but an equally significant part was her ongoing labor, peace, civil rights and social justice activism and the relationships forged in the course of that work. One of her earliest experiences was as a neighborhood activist who initiated the formation of the West Hills Community Council in the mid-1950s. She described it as a group whose goal was “to make [neighborhood] life better, independent of politicians…to make politicians work for you on neighborhood issues.”…

Although she had been involved in some anti-nuclear arms race demonstrations in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mary said that the Vietnam War propelled her further into peace work. During the 1960s and 1970s, hers was a familiar face on all-night bus rides from New Haven to Washington, D.C. for large anti-war demonstrations. In the 1980s, she continued to travel to Washington to protest United States intervention in Central America, and was arrested in April 1986 with others in the rotunda of the Capitol building for sitting in front of a bust of Martin Luther King and reading from the speech he made having decided that “the time had come” for him to publicly oppose the war in Vietnam. Periodically, they said in unison, “That time has come for us in relation to Nicaragua.” After a weeklong trial, charges were dismissed.

Mary also continued her peace activism more locally. She was a member of Spinsters Opposed to Nuclear Genocide (SONG), a New Haven based women’s affinity group, joining them in demonstrations at the local military recruiting station as well as at General Dynamics Corporation’s Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton. During the 1992 Christmas shopping season, she was arrested with another activist at a Bradlees store in East Haven for placing stickers which read “Don’t Buy War Toys” on items such as G.I. Joe figures. This latter incident reveals much about Mary’s character. She and other participants managed to walk out of the store without being stopped. One member of the group, Stephen Kobasa, was, however, roughly apprehended. When Mary saw this, she returned, waiting for police to arrive. “The Bradlees Two” were initially charged with “criminal mischief in the first degree,” a felony, but the charges were reduced in court and the case was settled….

Mary joined the New Haven Federation of Teachers in 1967, and she was a member of the Executive Board until her retirement. In 1970 and again in 1975, teachers who were perceived as leaders were sent to jail for contempt of court for defying injunctions not to strike. In 1970, Mary was the only woman among the 14 jailed….

Mary was active in the United Farmworkers’ Union movement as part of a New Haven committee that leafleted, picketed, and passed out information about the boycott of Gallo wine (made from grapes picked by non-union workers). After UFW organizers were called back to California in the mid-1970s, she continued the local support committee, producing at her own expense a handwritten newsletter about the struggle, which she hand-delivered throughout New Haven….

Over the years, Mary was a prime mover in many other organizations such as the May Day Celebration Committee, the Coalition to Stop Trident, the Pledge of Resistance, and the New Haven Coalition Against War in the Gulf.  She marched and was arrested in support of Yale union Locals 34, 35, and GESO (the Graduate Employee Student Organization, now Local 33.) She was active in the movement to pressure Yale to divest its holdings from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s….

In the 1990s, Mary worked with a group of citizens who were outraged that the City of New Haven, under pressure from a re-developer, removed several key bus stops from the central downtown area to make that portion of the city more “attractive” to tourists visiting Yale. She was also an ongoing, active member of several groups including the Greater New Haven Central Labor Council, the New Haven Federation of Teachers Retirees Chapter, the Greater New Haven Labor History Association, the Coalition for People, the Middle East Crisis Committee, and People Against Injustice.

After a 15-year struggle, the City of New Haven returned all but one of the downtown bus stops, and, on Mary’s 85th birthday in 2007, many of her friends joined her at Mayor John DeStefano’s office to demand the return of the last one to Church and Chapel Streets. DeStefano complied….

Even as her health declined, Mary continued to help coordinate the work of the Coalition for People, the Progressive Action Roundtable newsletter, and the Labor History Association. In her last years and months, she still advocated vocally for single payer health care, making phone calls to elected officials and getting her friends to do the same. She passed away on August 13, more than a year and a half after entering hospice care.

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