Attorney, activist Harriet McBryde Johnson dead at age 50

The Post and Courier
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Harriet McBryde Johnson, a well-known Charleston disability and civil rights attorney, died Wednesday.

“She worked yesterday. It’s a shock to everybody,” said friend and attorney Susan Dunn.

She was born July 8, 1957, and had been a Charleston resident since age 10.

She told The Post and Courier that she became an attorney because her disability-rights work had taught her something about the impact of law on how people live.

She specialized in helping people who couldn’t work get Social Security benefits.

She was chairwoman of the Charleston County Democratic Party executive committee (1988-2001); city party chair (1995-2000); secretary of city party (1989-95); national convention delegate (1996); president, Charleston County Democratic Women (1989-91); County Council candidate (1994); and a certified poll manager.

Funeral arrangements are pending at Fielding Home For Funerals.

Johnson, who was born with a neuromuscular disease, drew national attention for her opposition to “the charity mentality” and “pity-based tactics” of the annual Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon. Lewis told the Chicago Tribune he had no intention of making peace with opponents such as Johnson. He likened the idea of meeting with them to entertaining Hezbollah or insurgents in Iraq.

The protests started after Lewis wrote a 1990 Parade magazine article in which he imagined being disabled. Among his conclusions, “I realize that my life IS half, so I must learn to do things halfway. I just have to learn to try to be good at being half a person.”

One Response to “Obituary”
  1. Susana Morse says:

    I never met Harriet or had the pleasure of corresponding with her. In fact, I only came across her article protesting the MDA telethon today and had to respond somehow, even if she’s already gone from this world.

    As a former poster child, I spent years with conflicting feelings about the telethon, torn between a real need to fund services and the dehumanizing tactics used over the Labor Day weekend. It became so difficult that I stopped watching the deliberate pity party televised into millions of homes. The tear jerker stories never seemed to reflect my life or experience, rarely including success stories or real solutions for day to day challenges.

    I do not need saving.
    I do not need pity.
    I am not incapable or incomplete as a human being.

    It was refreshing to see someone else has had a similiar experience, to discover my own feelings expressed so clearly by another person living with a disability.

    Wherever you are, Harriet: thank you.

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