Rosita Johnson

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Rosita Johnson

Rosita B. Johnson is an African-American member of the Communist Party USA.

Joining the Party

Rosita Johnson joined the Communist Party USA through the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers[1];

I had strongly supported my union, the Philadelphia Federation of teachers since the 1960s. I wanted the union to fight for better schools and to support equality for Black students. In 1981, as a delegate to the AFT Convention, I met other school workers who were in the CP. I also saw red-baiting. I joined the AFT Black Caucus, whose chairman was a CPUSA member. I was exposed to more advanced thinking, not only about education but also about national and world affairs. I was asked to join the Party but hesitated. Then I attended a forum and heard Gus Hall speak. He made joining CPUSA sound so natural. Gus said, "Join us to make a better world, and if you don't like our party, you can always leave." I joined soon afterwards and have never regretted the decision.

Honored by the South African Government

Rosita Johnson organized and chaired the Friends of SOMAFCO, a group that for many years provided crucial support in the form of books and materials to a school for young people forced into exile from their homeland in apartheid South Africa.

It was her tireless years-long leadership in organizing support for the struggling youth of South Africa that earned her the Award of the Order of O.R. Tambo in Bronze in 2018. Oliver Tambo, who passed away in 1993, is remembered as one of the giants of the South African freedom struggle. The government of South Africa recognizes a select number of people with this award each year; Rosita is one of the few non-South Africans ever to receive it.

The Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College, or SOMAFCO, was in Tanzania, but its students were from South Africa, having fled their country’s apartheid terror after the 1976 Soweto uprising. With encouragement from Godfrey Sithole, the representative of the African National Congress (ANC) in the Philadelphia area, Rosita saw a need and went into action. The Friends of SOMAFCO was founded in June 1987 and soon had a hard-core committee of eight activists who undertook the group’s first project.

By January 1989, they had collected a stunning 14 tons of books, school supplies, and clothing which was then shipped to SOMAFCO. But that proved to be only the beginning. In subsequent years, the Friends sponsored a teacher from the school, Keith Pase, who attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned a master’s degree. They raised funds for the ANC voter education project. When SOMAFCO closed in 1992, the Friends donated funds to help the students, staff, and families return to South Africa.

In February 1993, Rosita and two other Philadelphians traveled to South Africa to attend the ANC International Solidarity Conference where they heard both Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela call for international support for free elections in the country.

Back in the U.S., the Friends of SOMAFCO did not close up shop; they saw more work to be done. Later that same year, members of the group served on the “Welcome Mandela Committee,” which organized the well-attended rally where Mandela spoke at the Philadelphia Convention Center on July 4. During the 1990s, the group adopted a secondary school near Soweto and, over a nine-year period, shipped thousands of books as well as equipment for a science laboratory. In 1999, Rosita and her sister, Jeanne Turner, visited the secondary school, where, as it happened, the teachers were on strike. She was glad to be able to express her support for them.

It was during the 1999 visit that Selealo Ramakgopa, one the of first SOMAFCO students who had by then become a prominent member of the Republic of South Africa’s diplomatic corps, took them to places that had special significance. First, they toured the parliament building where they saw that the photos of the former apartheid leaders had been removed from their prominent places and put in the basement. They also visited Robben Island, now a tourist site, formerly the infamous prison where Mandela and other ANC leaders had been held for so long.

Friends of SOMAFCO table at Unity Day, an annual outdoor event promoting unity among family as well as peace among people of all walks of life. At the table, members of Friends of SOMAFCO are selling buttons, getting memberships, and giving out literature. Seen here (from left) is Rosita Johnson, an unidentified woman, Arthur Edens, Sibongile Sithole (wife of African National Congress representative Godfrey Sithole), and Biki Minyuku. Believed to be from August 18, 1991. African Activist Archive / Friends of SOMAFCO Collection

Finally, during another emotional day, they attended a session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Durban. The day they attended, they heard five former police officials confess to some of the deeds they had carried out as agents of the apartheid regime. Rosita remembers the intense emotions in the room as the police officers, who had come voluntarily in the hope of receiving lighter punishment, confessed to awful deeds, but according to some in the audience, not everything they had done.

After her 1999 trip, Rosita wrote a comprehensive report which was serialized in a three-part series in the print edition of what was then the People’s Weekly World. In that report, she frankly told about the great efforts the people were making to bring change and move the country forward as well as the enormous problems South Africans faced after decades of the apartheid system.

Over the years, many people have supported the work of the Friends of SOMAFCO; some have passed away and some are still active in other projects. Rosita gave leadership and kept the Friends together and active through it all. As the South African government put it, when recognizing Rosita:

“The award of the Order of OR Tambo presented to Rosita by the South African Government is for her ‘outstanding contribution to the well-being of young South African exiles by enabling them to pursue their education, and for raising awareness, in the United States, of the plight of South Africans under apartheid.’”

The work of the Friends of SOMAFCO was also recognized by the Philadelphia City Council with a citation on the 30th anniversary of the group’s founding in May 2017.

Rosita credits her capacity for determined, consistent, and continuing struggle to her upbringing in Chicago and her early exposure to powerful progressive political ideas. She remembers often reading the Daily Worker both in her home and seeing it in her dentist’s office. But it was her activity in a rank and file caucus of the American Federation of Teachers that led her to the Communist Party USA. In a career spanning decades, she has distinguished herself as a powerful advocate for quality public education on two continents—in her own country and in the Republic of South Africa.[2]

Communist Party USA

In 2001 the Structure and Organization Convention Committee for the 27th National Convention of the Communist Party USA[3]included Marc Brodine (WA), Bill Davis (NY), Rosita Johnson (E. PA), Steve Noffke (MI), Brian Steinberg CT), Shelby Richardson (Ill) and Mark Almberg (ILL).

In September 2006 the Peoples Weekly World listed several members, or supporters of the Pennsylvania Communist Party:[4]

Asad Ali, Billie Penn Johnson, Denise Winebrenner Edwards, Donna Puleio Spadaro Dr A S Mahdi Ibn-Ziyad, Gary Puleio (In Memoriam), George Edwards, Joe Kopnitsky, Ken Heard, Ben Sears, Dave Bell, Debbie Bell, Diane Mohney & John Vago, Evie Horwitz & Larry Horwitz , Frances Gabow, The Incognito Family, James Bradford, Jimmie Wayne Moore, June Krebs, Leonard Pepper, Rookie Perna, Rosita Johnson, Sharon Hurley.

Endorsed Communist Party Call

On March 30 2002 the Communist Party USA paper People’s Weekly World called for a national holiday in honor of late Farm Workers Union leader Cesar Chavez. The article was followed by a long list of endorsers[5]including Rosita Johnson, Almost all endorsers were confirmed members of the Communist Party USA.

Philadelphia area Black Radical Congress

In 2006 Rosita Johnson was a member of the Philadelphia Area Black Radical Congress.[6]

Communist Party tribute

In July 2007, the Communist Party USA paper Peoples World published a tribute "We salute Joyce Wheeler" to retiring Baltimore public school teacher and Communist Party member Joyce Wheeler. Rosita B. Johnson signed the tribute page. Most of the more than 100 signatories were identified Party members.[7]

Debbie Bell memorial

On March 18 2018, a memorial was held at the Unitarian Society of Germantown for labor and community leader Debbie Amis Bell, who passed one year ago.

Bell was a founder of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a leader of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and of its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers. She was well-known and respected in labor circles here in Philadelphia and beyond. She was a National Committee member of the Communist Party USA and a leader in the party’s Philadelphia District organization.

The memorial keynote address was delivered by Jarvis Tyner, head of the New York State Committee of the CPUSA and National Committee member. Other speakers included Melvin Metelits, who at one time served with Debbie on the PFT’s executive board, and Rosita Johnson, a fellow teacher, progressive caucus member, and political activist.

Ron Whitehorne, long-time chair of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, led the 100-plus crowd in singing historic labor songs.

A surprise appearance was made by Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who recalled days of street activism alongside Bell and other left activists in Germantown. Councilwoman Bass presented the family with a certificate from City Council recognizing Bell’s longstanding contributions to justice.[8]