You Should Know About Minnesota Labor and Civil Rights Hero Nellie Stone Johnson

Minnesota civil rights and labor activist Nellie Stone Johnson was born on this day in 1905. Though little known nationally, she was a key figure in the US democratic socialist tradition who saw struggles for racial and economic justice as inseparable.

Nellie Stone Johnson at her sewing shop in 1980. (Stormi Greener / Star Tribune via Getty Images)

On November 21, 2022, politicians, activists, and local media gathered at the Minnesota state capitol for a statue unveiling. An impressive list of speakers was lined up, including Governor Tim Walz, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, former attorney general Skip Humphrey (son of former vice president Hubert Humphrey), and Minnesota AFL-CIO president Bernie Burnham.

The statue was of Nellie Stone Johnson, born on this day in 1905. As a labor and civil rights activist, she was almost legendary within Minnesota but virtually unknown nationally. The assemblage of fairly mainstream political leaders who gathered in her honor may obscure the fact that she should be remembered as a key figure in this country’s democratic socialist tradition, which viewed struggles for economic and racial justice as inseparable.

Johnson’s esteem within Minnesota’s political culture also speaks to the success of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL) in becoming a major player in the state’s politics, and arguably one of the most successful third-party efforts in US history. Nellie dedicated her life to the DFL, acting as a link between the party and important labor and civil rights constituencies.

“I Put the Family Farmer in the Same Class as Labor”

Though she is today little known outside of her home state, fortunately much of her legacy has been preserved through David Brauer’s oral history, Nellie Stone Johnson: The Life of an Activist.

Nellie’s first political activity took place in the context of her rural upbringing on a dairy farm in Lakewood, Minnesota. Her father’s political vision was inspired by the populist William Jennings Bryan. Her mother went to a teachers’ college where Ida B. Wells was a regular speaker.

They became an activist family organizing against the local creamery, where they would often get cheated on the weight of the milk and cream level. Her father became a charter member of the Twin Cities Milk Producers Association. He organized both black and white farmers, which had an effect on Nellie’s lifelong commitment to interracial organizing.

As she later reflected, “How did a black man organize mostly white farmers? The basis of that was Dad’s ability to work for all people. . . . I put the family farmer in the same class as labor, in terms of having to organize to fight power.”

The emergence of the Nonpartisan League (NPL) in 1915 became a perfect outlet for the family’s political energies. Founded by Socialist Party organizer Arthur Townley, the NPL was not explicitly socialist but drew on Scandinavian collective society culture. While they did not run their own candidates, they worked to elect those who supported policies like state ownership of mills, exempting farm improvements from taxation, and state hail insurance.

Around the same time, Minnesota’s labor movement was experiencing a period of rapid expansion. During a strike of streetcar workers in 1917, the NPL offered extensive support for the strikers and began to focus more on organizing workers. After moving the NPL moved its headquarters to Saint Paul, the Farmer Labor Party (FLP) was founded in 1918.

Nellie remembered riding on horseback at the age of fourteen, passing out FLP materials. Her father continued down a radical political path, supporting Socialist Party presidential candidates Eugene Debs in 1920 and Norman Thomas in 1928. He drew closer to Democratic Party politics as they saw many of their major policy goals being realized. He was appointed to the Rural Electrification Board by Harold Ickes, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior.

Nellie’s horizons expanded when she moved to Minneapolis in the early 1930s to attend the University of Minnesota. There she socialized with stimulating figures like Hubert Humphrey and Frank Oppenheimer, Robert Oppenheimer’s left-wing brother. She attended Paul Robeson concerts when he was in town and talked politics with him.

She also briefly dabbled in the Young Communist League, which gave her an appreciation of economic issues that she wasn’t hearing about elsewhere. She explained to journalist Les Suzukamo:

They were the only ones talking economic sense. They were talking about jobs, employment. Here, I thought, were some platforms and groups you could get together and do something for equality, which was something the two major parties were not addressing at all.

Johnson as Labor Activist

But most importantly, in Minneapolis she was fully introduced to the world of organized labor. She observed the epic battles of the Minneapolis Teamsters strike of 1934, and her father brought potatoes to feed the workers. Four of her uncles were members of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and gave her advice on trade union organizing.

She took a job as a service elevator operator at the Athletic Club and became part of an organizing drive when management announced they were going to cut pay from $15 per week to $12.5o. Partnering with a coworker who operated the freight elevator, she took turns having organizing conversations with coworkers as they rode the elevator up to their shift.

Their efforts were successful, and they became Local 665 of the International Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union, which she became vice president of in 1936. From that point on, she saw labor unions and jobs as the most important elements in the fight for black people’s equality and dignity for all working people.

As Johnson explained to David Brauer, “The way I saw it, the only strength that sprung to the fore was taking care of each other, humanity, and the labor movement was the only vehicle to do that — certainly it was the best organization economically for blacks.”

It wasn’t just that she thought jobs were the most important issue, but also that, in her eyes, having a good job was the stimulating force for all other kinds of social reforms. In a 1991 interview for local news outlet City Pages she remarked, “Somewhere in each family there has to be a job. And that job begets housing and also makes it possible for people to get the education they want. It creates the desire for education. Out of that comes everything else.”

Representing her local on the Central Labor Council, she used attained institutional support for broader social reforms in the city. She was the driving force in passing a resolution supporting the hiring of minority women as teachers. As one of the first women on her union’s negotiating committee, she helped Local 665 to become one of the first unions to bargain for equal pay for women in 1940.

It was this issue of jobs that led Nellie to become a firm supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Especially during this period, many of the most important civil rights activists came out of the labor movement and measured the progress of black people through the lens of full and fair employment.

Nellie became an advocate of merging the Farmer-Labor Party with the Democratic Party. The 1944 presidential campaign was seen by some FLP activists as a key moment to consolidate and expand the achievements of the New Deal. Reforms like Executive Order 8802, which was won when A. Philip Randolph threatened a mass march on Washington, banned discrimination in defense employment and indicated opportunities for more civil rights legislation.

Nellie partly explained her decision to back the merger by saying,

We didn’t want to lose what we gained as working-class and people of color. FDR had signed an executive order in 1941, E0 8802 — I’ll never forget that number. . . . Until we got civil and human rights things done in the public sector, we would never get things done in the private sector.

She served on the committee that oversaw the merger in 1944 and created the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL). As part of the DFL’s black caucus, she worked to help reelect Roosevelt and build his support within black communities. Using Executive Order 8802 as a model, Nellie worked with labor unions and the local NAACP chapter to pass the Minneapolis Fair Employment Practices Act in 1947.

Nellie’s experience, like so many other black trade unionists, should be a corrective to oversimplified narratives that characterize the New Deal as hopelessly discriminatory. This interpretation is contradicted by the fact that so many black civil rights activists at the time recognized the great progress and promise of New Deal reforms.

After the New Deal

Nellie’s feverish level of political activity continued. In 1945, she became the first black elected official in Minneapolis when she won a seat on the Library Board by twenty thousand votes. She would serve for six years, but eventually left because she wanted to devote her full energies to on-the-ground organizing.

Her accounts convey a strong sense of how important the leadership of black trade unionists was for the entire civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. For Johnson, black labor was “so far ahead of the black community it wasn’t even funny.”

Despite the fact that Minneapolis’s black population was small, Nellie was able to join a cohort of skilled black trade unionists who fought to bring a working-class flavor to the local civil rights movement. One ally was Albert L. Allen Jr, organizer and president of Local 3015 of the Clerical Workers Union at the Minneapolis airport. He also served as president of the Minneapolis NAACP from 1946 to 1949 and as a member of the Minneapolis Fair Employment Practices Committee in the early 1950s.

Cecil E. Newman, a former Pullman porter, also worked closely with Nellie. He started the Minneapolis Spokesman in 1934 and used it as a platform to promote labor unions and the New Deal, while also criticizing the black elite.

Nellie attended the 1949 NAACP convention where labor activists pushed more middle-class elements, including Thurgood Marshall, to start taking up a legal segregation case similar to what would eventually become Brown v. Board of Education. According to Nellie, “About a third of the convention was longshore or labor people, who were more radical.”

Often, she would clash with middle-class forces within the civil rights movement, which fostered a lifelong distrust: “The middle-class wants to slow things down too much, and they’re not the ones paying the price. Plus, the middle-class people came to fear labor.”

In 1955, the fair employment legislation Nellie helped pass in Minneapolis became  law across the state. In 1960, a fair housing bill, which she got the Central Labor Council to endorse, also passed. By 1963, she was already fifty-eight years old and had given decades to political activism. She opened her own small sewing shop but stayed on her union’s executive board and the Central Labor Council.

She remained active in Democratic Party politics, supporting Eugene McCarthy against her old friend Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and serving on the Democratic National Committee from 1979 to 1988.

To her great frustration, Nellie witnessed so many of the movements dear to her heart drift away from their grounding in the working class and the struggle for economic justice. Despite being a lifelong fighter for women’s equality and founder of the Minnesota Coalition of Trade Union Women chapter, she often had conflicts with feminists because she perceived that they were hostile to labor.

She complained:

If women think labor is unrepresentative of their concerns today, they’re crazy because they don’t understand history. Most women in my day came out of a home where some man was a member of the union. That elevated them financially to the standpoint where they could go to college, get an education, and fight for their rights.

She eventually came to see the DFL itself as too dominated by business interests. “There are simply too many pockets of conservatism in the DFL, too many MBAs who determine how things go, from the point of view of the business faction,” she said.

Within the major civil rights organizations, she observed a distinct neoliberal shift. In a 1992 interview for local news outlet City Pages, she said in plain terms that “the real civil rights of people is an economic question. I think the simultaneous deterioration of the civil rights movement and that of blacks in the labor movement over the last 30 years proves that.”

Nellie Stone Johnson died in 2002. Her life represented an era that many present-day gatekeepers of black politics would like to forget. For Johnson, the path to racial and gender justice went through a strong labor movement and universal social programs. This path not only delivers the most meaningful improvements to peoples’ lives — its power lies in the unstoppable coalition it can build among all working people.

As Johnson herself explained in refreshingly simple terms, “Unless you go where the bulk of the people are, how are you going to win? That’s what came out of the New Deal, just fundamental policies that benefited the most people, not your Chambers of Commerce or the wealthy only.”