Joe Johnson: Man without a country

By BILL ONASCH

 Joe Johnson passed away Aug. 5 in Chippewa Falls, Wis., at age 84. His long life was marked by resolute opposition to war, local and national leadership in the Socialist Workers Party, government persecution, an exceedingly frugal life style, and from middle age, devoted care to his mother during her final years.

I first met Joe when I transferred from the Chicago branch of the Socialist Workers Party to the Twin Cities in the fall of 1965. After a long dry spell during the Fifties, the SWP was beginning to grow once more. This was primarily the result of a youth radicalization expressed through developments such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committees involved in civil rights, the Free Speech Movement launched in Berkeley, and the “New Left” Students for a Democratic Society—who organized the first national protest against the Vietnam War.

The party’s Young Socialist Alliance, founded in 1960, participated in and recruited from these movements. The Twin Cities had done particularly well in campus recruiting, but many transferred elsewhere upon graduation and reinforcements were needed. At the request of the party’s national secretary Farrell Dobbs, three of us from the Windy City headed to the Land of Sky Blue Waters.

Joe Johnson was the branch organizer and a member of the national committee. He didn’t reside at the party headquarters at 704 Hennepin in the heart of downtown Minneapolis but, except when assignments took him elsewhere, he always seemed to be there day and night. When he wasn’t involved in a meeting, or tidying up the premises, he would be devouring books and newspapers, acquiring a thorough knowledge of theory and program as well as being up on current events. That’s also where he usually dined, utilizing the small kitchen to cook simple but wholesome dishes—which he was always willing to share.

The diverse composition of the branch then was certainly challenging to the organizer. There were still a number of strong-willed old-timers, including Ray Dunne, Harry DeBoer, and Jake Cooper—who had been involved in the historic 1934 Teamsters strikes and did hard time in the Sandstone prison after their conviction in the 1941 Minneapolis Smith Act trials. Their decades of valuable experience through ups and downs in the class struggle had to be meshed with the growing raw new levy of mainly campus youth.

With the help of Helen Scheer as part-time assistant organizer, Joe found ways to earn the respect and confidence of both groups and steered just about everyone into an appropriate assignment.

The party and YSA’s top priority then was the movement against the rapidly escalating Vietnam War. SDS did not follow up on their early success with the April 1965 March on Washington, and independent campus and community antiwar groups took up the fight.

One of the most successful was the Minnesota Committee to End the War in Vietnam, launched by students, radical pacifists, and “Old Left” radicals. Weekly business meetings on the University of Minnesota campus were often attended by dozens and planned a variety of activities that ultimately included mass marches. A fortnightly newsletter with a circulation that reached more than 2000 was edited and largely written by YSA comrades and sympathizers. It was printed on an offset press at the party headquarters, and that’s where the big mailing job, aided by a donated Addressograph, was also done—always with Joe’s efficient help.

Joe encouraged the YSA comrades to take the lead in this area of work while he mainly played a supportive role. But one suggestion he made had a big impact—old-fashioned street corner rallies. We started almost literally outside the front door of the party headquarters at the busy intersection of Seventh & Hennepin. Using a step ladder and bull-horn, a dozen or so antiwar activists took turns giving very short agitational speeches for ending the war by bringing the troops home now. Pausing passersby were asked to sign the antiwar committee mailing list. Joe didn’t speak but watched our back for any signs of trouble.

We got a mainly good response with only occasional heckling the first time out. But trouble came in the form of a squad of Minneapolis cops at a July 16, 1966, rally that had attracted a big crowd left over from a festival parade. The bulls in blue declared the rally to be an illegal assembly and that everybody involved was under arrest.

A Minnesota Supreme Court opinion later stated, “The circumstances of defendant Joseph D. Johnson’s arrest are equally uncertain. Chief of Police Calvin Hawkinson testified that he arrested Johnson when Johnson physically interfered with Hawkinson’s attempt to subdue an unknown lady who attacked the police. He testified that ‘Johnson put his arms in between and tried to push us apart.’”

Even though the statute of limitations has long since passed, I won’t name the “unknown lady” who went on to a distinguished career as an expat political and cultural writer in Europe. She had the height of a WNBA player and didn’t take kindly to being grabbed on the arm by a cop. She sent him reeling with a shove Bill Russell might have used on Wilt Chamberlain. Before Joe was nabbed by the Chief of Police, he advised Ms. X to head for Dayton’s—a nearby big department store, where she quickly blended in with the crowd of shoppers and exited in the next block.

The law the cops used for their bust was an ordinance passed in response to IWW Free Speech sidewalk rallies during the First World War. It required assemblies of more than 10 persons to display an American flag on a staff of specified dimensions. As a result of the antiwar movement’s revival of Wobbly tactics—at Joe’s suggestion–it was finally declared unconstitutional.

But Joe was somewhat preoccupied in those days with a party-led defense campaign against even more serious government persecution that threatened him with deportation or prison.

As a teenager, Joe avoided being drafted to fight in the Korean War that he strongly opposed by migrating from Wisconsin to Toronto, Canada. He became active in a Steelworkers local on his job and came to respect cothinkers of the SWP he encountered there. When they learned of his precarious legal status, they counseled him to return to the States and turn himself in rather than having this threat hanging over him the rest of his life. Whether this was the best advice could be debated, but that’s what Joe did.

The authorities in the Twin Cities were glad to see Joe and promptly awarded him free room and board at a minimum security prison in Springfield, Mo., for a little over two years. He told me some interesting tales about his incarceration, including the chance to meet the famous Birdman of Alcatraz. When he was finally given a new suit and 20 bucks in cash and told to go some place else, Joe headed to the Twin Cities to resume his life as a socialist antiwar agitator.

But it turned out the government wasn’t yet through with Joe. They said Joe’s support of a resolution in the union he belonged to in Toronto favoring a Canadian labor party violated a section of the infamous Smith Act prohibiting political activity in a foreign country. The penalty was exile. He was expected to self-deport—remaining in jail until he did.

The main issues in this ultimately victorious campaign were well stated in a pamphlet “They Have Declared Me A Man Without a Country”—unfortunately long out of print and not freely available in print or digital format.

In a letter to Socialist Viewpoint many years later, Joe described the logical fallacies of the government’s case, “One of the legal problems (among many) that the government had was that I was native born, as was my mother and father. And, I had already served two-plus years in prison as a citizen of the United States for a ‘crime’ only a citizen could commit—refusing to fight in the Korean War for political reasons.”

The SWP was familiar with other sections of the Smith Act. The party had been the first victim of its anti-Red persecution in a 1941 trial that sentenced 18 leaders—many also prominent union leaders—to prison for politically opposing the government’s drive to take America in to the Second World War. They also had some successful experience fighting deportations such as a decades-long delay of expelling Swedish immigrant Carl Skoglund—a chief strategist of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes—until he died at a ripe old age in his adopted country.

The party retained Doug Hall, a top-notch labor lawyer, and later assistance from the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee as well, for Joe’s legal defense. The SWP also rounded up an impressive list of allies in the labor and civil liberties movements to launch the Committee to Oppose the Deportation of Joe Johnson, and Joe was sent on a remarkable national public speaking tour.

He recalled, “For myself, the most exciting part was an extensive national tour I took speaking about the case and raising funds for my defense. The tour was over 99 days and 25,000 miles long that took me to most of the States, most of the large cities and all of the branches of the SWP in the U.S. The cost of the tour was smallest that anyone had knowledge of. The Greyhound Bus Co. had a promotion travel ticket that year (they never repeated it) where you could get a national one-way ticket for $99.00 that would last for 99 days.

“We worked out a master-ticket for myself. I went first to Seattle; then down the West Coast; then back to Denver; then to Texas and the South; then up the East Coast to New Jersey, New York, Boston, etc.; then to the Midwest; to Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, etc.; then back to Minneapolis. I spoke on TV, radio, had newspaper interviews, a full page in the Christian Science Monitor, etc.

“I traveled light with one small duffle bag. I tried to sleep in a bed every two or three days. Comrades made me a guest in their homes and gave me cooked meals and a change of underwear. I lived on approximately $2.15 per day. I was able to raise thousands for the defense case and a large number of people told me they joined the party after my speeches. We won the case and I enjoyed the tour greatly.”

It was typical of Joe’s spartan endurance that what would have been an exhausting sacrifice for most of us was for him exciting and enjoyable. The victory came when courts struck down the deportation section of the Smith Act.

For personal reasons I moved to St Louis in 1968 where for three years I helped build a new YSA chapter where there was no functioning SWP branch. In this relative isolation I didn’t fully appreciate the scope of changes taking place in the party on the national level and in the Twin Cities branch. The old party leadership was intensively training new young ones. Jack Barnes was slated to take over the national secretary position from Farrell Dobbs, and YSA leaders were being sent to branches to become organizers.

When I moved back to the Twin Cities in 1971 I found a much bigger branch in a new spacious headquarters. Antiwar work was at its peak but the party was also intervening in a resurgent feminist movement, a new environmental movement, an experiment with building a new independent Black party, and even some modest trade-union work. The Twin Cities Socialist Forum was thriving, branch bookstore sales were growing by leaps and bounds, and the party ran some lively election campaigns.

Joe Johnson, who was neither youth nor old-timer, was no longer organizer and had to adjust to a new role in the party. While this couldn’t have been easy, I never heard him complain, and during this period of party prosperity he gave new young leaders the support they needed and deserved.

Relieved of the demands of branch organizer, Joe devoted some attention to issues of strong personal interest. One was solidarity with workers behind bars—he’d been there. In 1972, in response to several brutally repressed prison protests, Joe wrote a popular pamphlet for the SWP, “The Prison Revolt.”

He also welcomed a long overdue shift in SWP policy embracing what is today known as LGBT rights.

When the U.S. ruling class finally had to withdraw from Vietnam—partly due to a mass antiwar movement that had begun to penetrate even active duty GIs—what had been the party’s central area of work and recruitment for a decade came to an abrupt halt. The Barnes leadership launched a series of dizzying, mostly ill-advised “turns.” One that had an unavoidable universal impact was the turn to “community branches.”

An early division of the big Twin Cities branch in to Minneapolis and St Paul branches made sense. But soon the Minneapolis branch was further subdivided into three very small ones. One of them conducted their branch meetings at a McDonald’s. The prominent public face of the SWP nearly disappeared. Joe didn’t hesitate to speak out against these schemes.

But these organizational disasters proved to be a precursor of a fundamental revision of the party’s theoretical and programmatic heritage by what had evolved into a national leadership clique around Jack Barnes. Those who didn’t hail the new changes were thrown out in waves of mass expulsions. Many of those came together to form Socialist Action.

By this time Joe was headed back to his family home of Chippewa Falls to care for his elderly mother and to eke out a living running a bookstore. He maintained friendly relations with old comrades to the end. His exemplary contributions to building a revolutionary party will be missed and remembered. So will his loyal and generous friendship that touched so many of our lives.                        

Photo: Joe Johnson was a staunch antiwar activist in the Twin Cities, as well as serving as the SWP branch organizer. Pictured is a 1970 march in St. Cloud, Minn., to protest the Vietnam War.