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Mary D. Johnson, 95

posted: Aug 21, 2017 2:00 pm | Comments (3)

Melissa Bailey File Photo Mary Johnson’s voice was heard.

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. (Click here and here to read about just two examples of her activism.)

Johnson died Aug. 13 at the age of 95.

Joan Cavanagh, who organized alongside her, submitted the following biographical sketch of Johnson, originally written for her 80th birthday and updated this week:

Mary Doherty Johnson was born on March 29, 1922, in Winsted, CT., the oldest of four children. Her parents were James Doherty and Ethel Constable Doherty. Her first residence was in West Haven, but the family moved to New Haven when Mary was seven.  Her father worked for the Associated Press for over 40 years.

Mary attended the New Haven State Teacher’s College from 1939 until 1943. She taught second grade at the Walnut Beach School in Milford for a year, then moved to the Cheshire Elementary School in 1944, where she received a raise of $300, “for a grand total of $1300” a year. She resigned in June 1949, marrying Carl Johnson on December 26th. The Johnsons lived at McConahey Terrace in New Haven for the duration of their marriage. They had three daughters, Mary Louise, Elizabeth, and Martha.

In 1965, Mary began substitute teaching, “mostly at the West Hills School” in New Haven. In 1967, she became a permanent substitute at the Sheridan Middle School, and decided to return to teaching on a full-time basis. She got a contract at Troup Middle School, where she taught until retirement in 1982.

The Johnsons separated in 1968 and their divorce was finalized in 1977, but they maintained ties of friendship and family, in later years sharing holidays together at Mr. Johnson’s home in Westerly, Rhode Island with their daughters and Mary’s sisters Jane Toles and the late Bernice Doherty, as well as Jane’s husband, children, and grandchildren. Carl Johnson passed away in 2001.

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.” The Council tackled standard issues such as baseball field renovation and installation of traffic lights, but Mary said that its “greatest achievement” occurred when a local social worker, Hugh Woodard, advised them that housing built in the area for arms workers during World War II and occupied ever since by their families was being sold by the federal government “to the highest bidder.” This involved over 300 units in the area. The Council went to each of them to inform them of the situation. After receiving pressure from the Council and the families occupying the units, the City of New Haven in turn put pressure on the federal government, which eventually relented and established priorities for the sale of the units: first priority would be given to people who already lived in them; second, to World War II veterans; third, to Korean War veterans; and fourth, to New Haven residents. 

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. In 1975, she was part of the teachers’ negotiating committee, whose members were first sent to jail on a Friday afternoon. They were held until 3 a.m. the next morning, and then released due to parent pressure. The teachers then negotiated with the school board all weekend, but were suddenly told “all bets were off” at 8 a.m. on Monday, when, exhausted, they were returned to jail. Although this was obviously a tactic by the school board to wear the teachers down and break the strike by removing the leadership at a crucial point, the Federation had anticipated such a possibility and had trained a second negotiating team. Other striking teachers were also arrested, but, because of the leaders’ foresight, the second team of negotiators continued the talks, and a contract favorable to the teachers was negotiated within the week.

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. She continued the newsletter until 1980. A highlight of her work with the UFW was a trip across country by bus in 1976 to attend a union convention in Southern California. She “was twice the age of everyone else” on the trip.

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 redeveloper, 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.

Despite her energy and vitality, Mary struggled with health problems for many years. She was diagnosed with melanoma in 1986, and underwent many procedures to arrest it. In 1989, she had major surgery for a tumor in her right lung. In 1991, she had surgery again for colon cancer. From 1991 until 1993, she took Ampligen as part of an experimental trial and was the only long-term survivor in the group. She was always a proactive and vocal participant in her own health care.

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 13th, more than a year and a half after entering hospice care.

A memorial gathering for Mary Johnson will be held in New Haven in early October. Details will be announced as soon as plans are finalized.

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posted by: Paul Wessel on August 22, 2017  6:07am

A good soul.

posted by: hopeful on August 22, 2017  8:31am

I had Ms. Johnson at Troup middle school She was one of my favorite teachers told it like it was .

posted by: HenryCT on August 24, 2017  11:14am

Wearing many political buttons, Mary was a colorful, walking billboard for progressive causes. Short in height, long on courage, quietly persuasive, Mary evidenced the reality that success often requires unreasonable persistence. Those small shoes will be hard to fill.

¡Mary Johnson, Presente!

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