I spent some time this week going through Eddie Johnson’s clip file. I had wanted to write about Eddie in the wake of his June 18 death at what seems like the relatively young age of 72. But before I wrote about him, I wanted to make sure I had a better handle on who he was in his entirety. Because despite 18 years of covering Eddie as a reporter, writing about him as a columnist and negotiating with him as an editor, I felt like I still didn’t quite grasp the entire Eddie Johnson.
Now, a clip file is literally what it sounds like. Prior to the start of the era of Standard-Times internet archives in 1997, the paper used to keep track of news stories by literally cutting out the printed stories and storing them in folders that were filed away in a massive set of filing cabinets called “the morgue.”
Morgue literally means the place of dead newspaper stories and there were a couple of big files for Eddie Johnson in our morgue. And that’s before the whole era when Eddie ran for mayor, founded the environmental group CLEAN, and had his greatest success publicizing his desire to build a “Parting Ways” museum for four largely unknown African-Americans who fought in the Revolutionary War.
WBSM talk jock Chris McCarthy describes Eddie Johnson as “an American original” and he certainly was all of that. His deeply black skin, his pronounced Southern drawl, and the constant sense of outrage, of injustice in his voice made him an experience we don’t often encounter in this pinched corner of the country called New England.
But anyone who had ever experienced Eddie — in one of his endless flame-throwing email bombs, in one of the personal attacks he was fond of making on talk radio, or in one of the guerrilla-warfare tactics he used to bring the issues of prejudice and hypocrisy to the forefront of New Bedford’s consciousness — knows and knew that Eddie was also a very tough pill to swallow.
Eddie Johnson did not play nice. And he did not color within the lines.
And yet for all of that, I cannot think of another New Bedford resident who worked harder over the course of the last 30 years, was involved in more issues of public concern, and took his hard-won right to participation in the public square as an American citizen more seriously than Eddie Johnson.
The early newspaper clips — the period from when Eddie arrived in the city in 1976 roughly through the mid 1990s — opened to me a whole life of Eddie before before I knew his work making sure the city took seriously its responsibility to clean up the Parker Street neighborhood it had contaminated with PCBs and then blithely decided to build a massive middle school on.
Eddie spent much of the 1980s and ‘90s as the leading voice for a group called the Minority Action Committee. The MAC, as it was called, was a thorn in then-Mayor Rosemary Tierney’s side, with Eddie as the leading voice demanding the city conduct a thorough investigation of the death of Morris Pina in a police holding cell, and a subsequent reform of the police department.
Johnson, along with Buddy Andrade, during these years, was also the leading voice demanding city contractors adhere to hiring guidelines adopted by the city for minority and women.
By the end of the Tierney administration, Rosemary had given Eddie a job for a while and some contended that she, and “the Machine” insiders that comprised many of her supporters, co-opted Eddie by having him lob their political charges against the city’s reformers. That’s an incomplete deconstruction of Eddie Johnson as no one could ever really control him, but it’s fair criticism.
Eddie Johnson was always fighting. Even within the minority community, he was often at sharp odds with his contemporaries. He waged a long struggle for control of the New Bedford NAACP with Lee Charlton and others who wanted a more responsible approach to protest. And he was not above using whatever tactics he thought necessary, even advocating for the city to foreclose on the NAACP’s West End headquarters for non-payment of taxes.
Even though Eddie’s protests were for all too legitimate reasons, he was almost always out of control in making them. Everyone from Charlton to the local branch of Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination to the Third District Court banned Johnson from their premises at one time or another. Some, driven to distraction by him, sought to win court injunctions from his harassing phone calls. But they couldn’t ban him forever or completely exile him from the city and Eddie Johnson always came back for more. When he successfully appealed a ban from the MCAD office after spending 17 days in jail for trespassing, he argued that “no American can be permanently denied access to a government building.”
Like a lot of folks in the infrastructure of public life in New Bedford, I made it my business to stay on good terms with Eddie Johnson, within the bounds of honest and full reporting. Not only because I thought his points of view important for the city but for my own protection should I stray into politically incorrect territory.
Eddie was unpredictable. For a long time a registered Republican, he eventually became an independent and took pride in supporting Barack Obama as the first African-American president. At the same time, he more than hated Deval Patrick. More than anything, Eddie always demanded his seat at the small ‘d’ democratic table.
As I made my way through Eddie’s clips, I came across only one that described his upbringing.
It was written in 1979 by a reporter named Diane Hinchcliffe and it talked about Eddie’s background as an advocate for labor rights with the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the AFL-CIO. But it also quoted Eddie saying he grew up an orphan in Augusta, Georgia and that he didn’t know his mother until he was an adult.
That clip made me take a deep breath about the life Eddie Johnson led. His journey from Augusta to New Bedford and all the battles he forged here, the baggage he may have carried here, and the victories he won here.
Chris McCarthy talked about Eddie Johnson being an American original. But even more than that, Eddie Johnson was a black man from the Deep South living an American life in a small and ethnic northern city. He lived that American life amidst all the political and cultural changes of the second half of the 20th century and while inheriting the full burden of this country’s original sin of racism.
Eddie Johnson rolled up his sleeves and made a difference in this country and in his adopted city.
Follow Jack Spillane on Twitter @JackSpillaneSCT