Dorothy Healey, 91; Lifelong Communist Fought for Workers

Times Staff Writer

Dorothy Healey, a onetime labor organizer, civil rights activist and Marxist radio commentator who was chairwoman of the Southern California district of the Communist Party USA from the late 1940s through the 1960s, has died. She was 91.

Healey, dubbed “the Red Queen of Los Angeles” by headline writers during her heyday, died Sunday of pneumonia in the Greater Washington Hebrew Home, said her son, Richard. She had been a resident of Washington, D.C., since 1983.

The diminutive Healey, who stood just under 5 feet tall and once wore a pendant that pictured a clenched fist raised as a symbol of solidarity and militancy, fought a lifelong battle against what she called the oppression of the middle class and minorities.


“She was a heartfelt revolutionary of her time,” Donna Wilkinson, the widow of national civil liberties leader Frank Wilkinson, told The Times on Monday. “She was always so fiercely partisan for working people. Yes, of course, she cared about war and peace and women’s issues, but she was always concerned about working people.”

The daughter of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, Healey was born in Denver on Sept. 22, 1914. Her father was a traveling salesman, and the family moved from Denver to California when she was 6. Constantly on the move because of her father’s work selling smoked meat and cheese, Healey attended 19 schools. Her father died when she was 16.

Healey, whose Socialist mother was a founding member of the Communist Party in America, joined the Young Communist League in 1928, when she was 14.

“I joined the Young Communist League out of a feeling of hate and love,” she told an audience at Golden West College in Huntington Beach in 1977. “I hated the system that reduced all humans to a feeling of total helplessness ... of fear over what each day would bring.

“I loved the humans who lived under these [conditions] and I respected their potential.”

She was arrested for the first time at 14 -- for selling the Daily Worker newspaper and making a speech on skid row in Oakland.

At 16, she dropped out of school and helped organize a union and a strike at a cannery in San Jose, where she worked.

By 1933, she was organizing agricultural workers in the Imperial Valley. By the end of the decade, she was international vice president of the Congress of Industrial Organization’s Cannery, Agriculture and Packing House Workers union.

Healey was brought into leadership of the party in Los Angeles at the end of World War II. She became leader of the Communist Party USA’s Southern California district, the second largest after New York. She also became a member of the party’s National Committee.

In 1951, Healey and 14 other Californians were indicted and convicted under the Smith Act for conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the government by force and violence. Although she was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000, her sentence was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1957.

“The decision was the government had to show -- and they had not shown -- that the advocacy was intended to motivate people immediately to action, not merely the reading of old Marxists texts,” her son said.

From 1956 on, when Healey learned the truth from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s so-called “secret speech,” in which he revealed Stalin’s crimes to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, Healey became an advocate for democratizing the American Communist Party and sought more independence from Soviet control.

That led her to become an outspoken critic of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, a country she had visited the previous year. Because of her opposition to the national leaders of the American Communist Party, she resigned as chairman of the Southern California district.

In 1973, she resigned from the American Communist Party. She said, however, that she remained a staunch communist and was as much an enemy of capitalism as ever.

“My resignation from the Communist Party will not bring comfort to anti-Communists on either the right or left,” she said on her semimonthly commentary broadcast over radio station KPFK-FM (90.7).

“My hatred of capitalism, which degrades and debases humans, is as intense now as it was when I joined the Young Communist League in 1928,” she said. “I remain a communist, as I have been all my life, albeit without a party.”

Healey then joined the New American Movement, a nationwide organization for democratic socialism, co-founded by her son. She later joined the Democratic Socialists of America and became a vice president of the organization.

“Dorothy was a rebel, and it was her rebellious nature that made her such an effective union leader in the 1930s,” Maurice Isserman, coauthor, with Healey, of the 1990 book “Dorothy Healey Remembers: A Life in the Communist Party,” told The Times on Monday.

Isserman, a historian at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., said Healey’s union activism in the ‘30s “led her to become an advocate of black and Chicano rights at a time when few other people were speaking out on such issues.”

In 1979, a collection of Healey’s papers and other material, purchased by the Cal State Long Beach library for an estimated $11,000 to $14,000, was dedicated at the library, where she was guest of honor and keynote speaker.

The last time Healey had appeared on the Long Beach campus -- at the invitation of a radical student group in the late ‘60s -- she had been heckled and jeered.

But by 1979, according to a Times account of the dedication, “she hardly raised an eyebrow among an audience of 100 students and faculty members.”

In his review of Healey’s 1990 book in The Times, Jonathan Kirsch wrote that it “is essentially a political testament by a witness to history, a memoir by an Old Bolshevik who was never a true believer because she was cursed with an unrelenting conscience and a ribald sense of humor.”

But at its most touching moments, Kirsch wrote, Healey’s book “is more nearly a melodrama -- the struggle of a zealous, principled and compassionate woman to make sense of life and love in a world utterly devoted to radical politics.”

Wilkinson, who knew Healey for more than 40 years, said “old age had ravaged” Healey’s body, “but she read four newspapers up to the end and knew exactly what’s going on in the Mideast and South Central Los Angeles. She paid attention to what was going on.”

Married and divorced three times, Healey moved from Los Angeles to Washington to be near her son, who, along with two grandsons, survives her.