Out with Columbus, in with the communists

Gov. Tim Walz dedicated a new statue of Nellie Stone Johnson today at the State Capitol. The press fawned over the ceremony, calling her an “iconic civil rights and labor leader.” They never mention her time in the Communist Party in Minnesota in the 1930s and ’40s, because that would be inelegant.

Nellie Stone Johnson was a prominent leader of the Democratic Party in Minnesota. She was there with Hubert Humphrey when they merged the Democratic Party with the Farmer Labor Party. She served on the Democratic National Committee for two terms in the 1980s.  

Like many early DFL leaders in Minnesota, Stone Johnson was also a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. Communists were front and center in the battle for control of the labor movement in the 1930s and were still prominent in the ’40s when the Democratic Farmer Labor Party was formed.

According to her biography, titled The Life of an Activist, Stone Johnson once spoke at a Lenin Memorial Meeting and lamented the fact that she had to step away from the Communist Party for political reasons:

My association and philosophical beliefs with those parties, the belief within me, was true, but my bottom line was always about jobs and education. I was getting a lot of questions…I wanted to get everybody off my back was basically it.

So how are Minnesotans in 2022 supposed to judge a political figure in the 1930s? Is it fair to associate her with the millions of Russians killed by Lenin in the name of communism? Are we to consider the context of the times? Surely the brand of communism practiced by Stone Johnson and other labor and DFL leaders in Minnesota wasn’t the same as Stalin and Lenin, right?

Were Christopher Columbus’ sins considered in the context of the time he walked the earth when Tim Walz and Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan stood by and allowed his statue to be torn down by vandals? Of course not.

Most of the speakers at the ceremony today talked about her activism and organizing skills, either in the labor movement or DFL politics. Is political activism deserving of a statue at the Capitol?

Meanwhile, the statue of Columbus remains in cold storage somewhere with his pedestal sitting empty outside the Capitol. It must have been a bridge too far for Walz and Flanagan to place the Nellie Stone Johnson statue in Columbus’ old spot.

Gov. Walz said today, “We need to tell our inclusive and whole history of who we are.” Except for the communist part, or the Columbus part. Don’t look for Stone Johnson’s time in the Communist Party to be mentioned in any of the press accounts of today’s unveiling.

By the way, if you’re looking for someone who really did make an impact on the national and world stage during this time period, let me introduce you to Walter Judd. Judd was a Congressman from Minneapolis who spent his career fighting communism after serving as a missionary to China as a young doctor. When he arrived in Washington in 1943, Judd instantly became a leader on foreign affairs and became a trusted advisor to every president from Truman to Reagan. As a matter of fact, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Reagan in 1981.

With four more years of Walz-Flanagan, don’t hold your breath for the unveiling of Republican Walter Judd’s statue in the Minnesota State Capitol.