Tribute to pioneer highlights the crucial link between labor and civil rights

Beginning on January 24, 2013, the History Theatre will feature 19 wonderful performances about the life and times of Nellie Stone Johnson. The production, entitled Nellie, shows the protagonist to be a true trailblazer, knocking down seemingly insurmountable barriers that had been erected and reinforced for years based on race, sex, and class. As then, many of the interests now seeking arrangements that result in racial inequality are also pursuing an agenda that creates unequal opportunity based on sex and class. As recent maneuvers in the Michigan Legislature and elsewhere illustrate, many of the same forces seeking to undermine unions and workplace democracy are also, for example, seeking to limit a women’s right to choose and to restrict, disproportionately, people of color’s right to vote.

Nellie Stone Johnson’s life should be a compelling reminder that the nation’s hope lies with people of integrity coming together across lines of perceived difference, including race, sex, and class. The universalizing and unifying idea of human rights is an obvious way that this coalescing has happened and should continue to happen. Before the concept of human rights had become a formal legal concept, let alone a high-profile issue across the globe, Nellie Stone Johnson was paving the way for fundamental fairness and meaningful equality for people of color, for women, and for workers. In other words, she worked diligently over decades for the realization of human rights in daily life for regular people.

If an African-American woman, Nellie Stone Johnson, could successfully take on racism in the time of Jim Crow, sexism at a time when women were largely confined to the home, and classism in the time of the Red Scare, then certainly people today can work together to face the challenges before the country. In other words, Nellie offers a welcome antidote to the cynicism and despair that seems to afflict so many today. In this context, looking backward actually reveals the way forward.

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