By Wendy Johnson
In the grim period of McCarthyism during the 50s, Howard “Stretch” Johnson, my father, fought for freedom of thought and speech, protesting the persecution of artists and intellectuals. Despite the fact that he had grown away from the Communist Party, with the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party and the revelations of Stalin’s bloody deeds, Stretch stood trial and refused to denounce his comrades. In solidarity, one of my father’s deepest values, Stretch did not leave the Party until 1956. Until the end of his life, he considered himself a “communist with a small c” and espoused every cause he felt was tactically or strategically right in the fight for the advancement of poor folks, convinced that the market economy is not the answer.
Cover to the propaganda comic book Is This Tomorrow by Catechetical Guild. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
In 1959, my father, realizing a dream, had passed his high school equivalency test and received his diploma. All his life he was as proud of that high school diploma as he was of the honorary doctorate he later received from the University of Honolulu. In 1960, Stretch was able to enroll in the degree program at the Columbia School of General Studies after having completed the validation requirements. He was also proud to be a freshman at Columbia University; since I was a freshman at Hunter College that same year, our family was proud to have two generations of freshmen.
Shortly after Stretch arrived at Columbia University, the then Dean of the School of General Studies, Clifford Lord, received a visit from two FBI agents who asked him to get rid of Stretch, saying that he was a former communist and a trouble maker. The dean escorted the agents to the door, saying “Mr. Johnson is a good student here with excellent grades and we are a private institution of higher learning. That’s all that matters!”
Working at night as a proofreader for the New York Times, Stretch was finally getting that college education he had wanted, not only for his children, but for himself. In 1968, he became Director of the “Upward Bound Program” to help disadvantaged youth from New York City enter college. From 1971 to 1982, as Professor of Sociology, he taught in the Black Studies Department at State University of New York, New Paltz campus.
As a teacher, both at the New Paltz SUNY campus and in the education programs of correctional facilities in the mid-Hudson valley area, Stretch mentored many young African-Americans who were inspired by his account of transformative self-realization and determination to continue a commitment to social justice. Stretch shared with the next generations a life experience spanning over sixty years and illustrating personal fulfillment during critical times that shaped the African American condition in American society (“I found that most of the inmates had a much clearer comprehension of the exploitative structure of society and were less subject to illusions about democracy”). His honesty, sense of humor and straight talk appealed to students and drew big crowds to his popular classes. He was proud to talk of his eleven-year record in which he had been characterized as one of the ten best professors on the New Paltz campus. He went on to say “It was here that I had felt most fulfilled as an educator, gratified by my students who called me Malimwu – ‘teacher’ in Swahili .”
I think these years of teaching were indeed the most rewarding years of my father’s life. He used to say to me that if he had turned on one young mind, he had not lived in vain. I believe he touched many lives, and was such a strong example of Black resilience and of everyday heroics, that he will continue to turn us on with his story.
Howard “Stretch” Eugene Johnson (1915-2000) was a former Communist Party leader, Cotton Club dancer, World War II veteran, and academic. His final years were spent as a professor of Black studies at SUNY New Paltz and as an ongoing activist in Hawai’i, where he helped achieve state recognition of Martin Luther King’s birthday as a bank holiday, marching until the age of 80 in Paris, France, and Harlem for causes he believed just. His autobiography, A Dancer in the Revolution, was published in April by Fordham University Press. Wendy Johnson is the eldest of Stretch and Martha Sherman Johnson’s three daughters. She has worked as an activist, translator, and teacher of English. She lives in Paris.
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By Corey Robin
Ron Paul has two problems. One is his and the larger conservative movement of which he is a part. The other is ours—by which I mean a left that is committed to both economic democracy and anti-imperialism.
Ron Paul’s problem is not merely the racist newsletters, the close ties with Lew Rockwell, his views on abortion, or even his stance on the 1964 Civil Rights Act—though these automatically disqualify him from my support. His real problem is his fundamentalist commitment to federalism, which would make any notion of human progress in this country impossible.
Federalism has a long and problematic history in this country—it lies at the core of the maintenance of slavery and white supremacy; it was consistently invoked as the basis for opposition to the welfare state; it has been, contrary to many of its defenders, one of the cornerstones of some of the most repressive moments in our nation’s history[pdf]—and though liberals used to be clear about its regressive tendencies, they’ve grown soft on it in recent years. As the liberal Yale constitutional law scholar Akhil Reed Amar put it not so long ago:
Once again, populism and federalism—liberty and localism—work together; We the People conquer government power by dividing it between the two rival governments, state and federal.
As I’ve argued repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere, the path forward for the left lies in the alliance between active social movements on the ground and a strong national state. There is simply no other way, at least not that I am aware of, to break the back of the private autocracies that oppress us all.
Even people, no, especially people who focus on Paul’s position on the drug war should think about the perils of his federalism. There are 2 million people in prison in this country. At most 10 percent of them are in federal prisons; the rest are in state and local prisons. If Paul ended the drug war, maybe 1/2 of those in federal prison would be released. Definitely a step, but it has to be weighed against his radical embrace of whatever it is that states and local governments do.
Paul is a distinctively American type of libertarian: one that doesn’t have a critique of the state so much as a critique of the federal government. That’s a very different kettle of fish. I think libertarianism is problematic enough—in that it ignores the whole realm of social domination (or thinks that realm is entirely dependent upon or a function of the existence of the state or thinks that it can be remedied by the persuasive and individual actions of a few good soul
A transnational peace activist for roughly half a century, Nigel Young has spent his life on the margins of political and state boundaries. Below Young reveals what he has learned to be a fine line between espionage and conflict research (i.e. “the perfect cover”).
By Nigel Young
By the time I first moved into peace research in 1963, I had become aware of the State’s interests (or often several States’ interests) in the anti-war movement: McCarthyist informers, Cold War agent provocateurs, intelligence sniffers, as well as plain opportunists, con-men, the confused, and mavericks – it was not only phone taps and men in macs. And then there were some odd characters in the peace movement itself, like Bertrand Russell’s secretary, R. Schoenman, and on the margins Pergamon Press’ Robert Maxwell, or the MP John Stonehouse in the U.K. The Quakerly dictum, “think the best of everyone you meet”, was certainly the one that many of us aspired to, but how many “strikes” before someone was out of the reach of trust and credibility? During the anti-draft movement in the U.S.A., the “plants” were obvious, their jeans and denim didn’t fit, they were awkward and not very with it, and their sunglasses were not cool. But they sowed mutual suspicion and that was enough. Many groups broke up. And during and after McCarthyism, in the 1960s, I directly experienced the entry of agents, often ex-military, into peace studies and action roles – not so much to gain information as much as to disrupt, divide and dismantle.
Those who work on the margins of states and boundaries – spies and peaceniks – have a lot in common. They sift the same information. They share not only their extra-national orientations, but their ambivalent loyalties and often the frontiers, or “walls” – around which they work in. I remember one occasion when a somewhat eccentric combat military officer, turned critic, turned journalist, turned researcher, (and temporary colleague) asked me, “But why would a spy be in peace research?” My response was immediate: “Because it is the perfect cover!” It’s one better than journalism, or refugee work, better than the U.N. and far better than the diplomatic corps. The genuine conflict researcher has legitimate roles in zones of conflict and violence and talks to both – or all sides – the IRA, the Brits, the Loyalist paras, the police, always “listening” carefully. The difference is between the overt (if still confidential) and the covert, the dissembler.
Of course, peace researchers are not free of their own agendas; even for more universal values. I made myself very unpopular in one North American University seminar by saying that I would have been sorely tempted to help Klaus Fuchs (the Atom Spy) escape if I was sure it could have helped nuclear disarmament. And I knew people who succumbed to similar temptations; or to covertly support one of the big battalions in a moment of crisis. Inevitably, transnational activism and study brought us into contact with senior military or ex-military, or intelligence – some as colleagues. Some turned for help to us; I still recall the unnameable high ranking North Vietnamese intelligence officer defecting (with my and others’ help) to Scandinavia, via embassies in Europe. It was he who had sought assistance. Very real, human, not an imagined ghost; he was desperate to tell his story, at length; though how much of it he told I’m not sure; but it had the passionate ring of authenticity and a plethora of details.
Most of us are caught up, one way or another
It was inevitable that a novel featuring my three favourite historic figures (Diego Riveira, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky) should find its way into my supermarket basket. How glad I am that it did!
The Lacuna is a well-researched and beautifully written epic novel that captured my imagination and held my attention from its early pages. It combines modern and ancient Mexican history with modern US history and an anti-war message. It tells the life of Harrison Shepherd, an American boy growing up in Mexico, and later of his career and exile in the USA. His story is interwoven with that of famous artists Riveira and Kahlo, and the Bolshevik leader, Trotsky.
Chancing to meet Frida Kahlo in the market place one day, he offers to carry her basket, and not discouraged by her rather scornful reply, he follows her home – the start of a complicated life-long friendship and his first job in the Riveira/Kahlo home.
Shepherd makes himself indispensible as a mixer of the best plaster, a fine cook and a secretary. When the household takes in exiled Russian leader, Leon Trotsky, Shepherd becomes his main scribe and translator. His diaries give colourful descriptions of the vibrant personalities he lived amongst and of a life under constant threat of attack.
After Shepherd’s death, he makes his way to small-town American and establishes a new life as an author. He leads a reclusive life and tries as much as possible to be unnoticed, but his novels are overnight successes and draw a lot of attention from women (in which Shepherd) is not remotely interested) and from the media.
As McCarthy’s witch-hunt against Communism draws momentum, Shepherd comes under suspicion by his former association with Riveira, Kahlo and Trotsky and is drawn into an ugly legal battle.
Will he clear his name? You will just have to read this fascinating and entertaining story to find out. Highly recommended.