The left’s “greatest generation”–those tough-as-nails children of Ellis Island who built the CIO, fought Jim Crow in Manhattan and Alabama, and buried their friends in the Spanish earth–have now almost entirely passed from the American scene. It is an inestimable, heart-wrenching loss, and for many Nation readers, as well as listeners to Pacifica Radio, it is now symbolized by the death of Dorothy Ray Healey last week in Washington, DC, at age 91.
The Los Angeles Times in its obituary predictably labeled Dorothy “The Red Queen of Los Angeles” a term it had coined back in the 1950s when it was trying to railroad her to prison. She was, unquestionably, Southern California’s most famous Communist, but equally the CPUSA’s most iconoclastic thinker and irrepressible rebel, bravely defending Prague Spring and denouncing the Soviet Union for its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The daughter of immigrant Debsian Socialists, one of her earliest memories was being bounced on Big Bill Haywood’s knee. When she was fourteen (in 1928) she joined the Young Communist League, and a few years later quit high school to agitate the unemployed in downtown Oakland, trading prom night for a soapbox and jail cell.
This tiny woman’s physical courage, like her warmth, intelligence, and wit, was legendary: whether facing up to shotgun-toting vigilantes as a farm-workers’ organizer in the late 1930s; defying her prosecutors as an indicted Communist leader in the 1950s; defending the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles the 1960s; or telling Gus Hall where to shove it in the early 1970s, when she was finally expelled from the CPUSA for her democratic-socialist heresies.
But neither the FBI nor the apparatchiks couldn’t take her off the air, and for decades more Dorothy used her soapbox on KPFK (Los Angeles) and then WPFW (Washington DC) to argue eloquently for socialism, feminism and peace.