(January 18, 1925 - July 27, 2006)
By Vince Carducci
If those who came of age in America during World War II are truly the "greatest generation," then Maryann Mahaffey, a distinguished Detroiter who died of a rare
form of leukemia on July 27 at age 81, was surely among the brightest and the best of that illustrious cohort. She served on the Detroit City Council for more than three decades, and was president for 11 of the last 15 years before retiring at the end of 2005 due to complications from her illness. Mahaffey was an advocate for social and economic justice at a time when "blame the victim" increasingly came to be accepted as sound public policy.
Mahaffey was born in Burlington, Iowa, on January 18, 1925. She received a Master's of Social Work degree from University of Southern California in 1951 and taught in Wayne State University's Department of Social Work from 1965 to 1990. As an academic she wrote numerous papers on social problems and then as a politician set about fixing them. Her initiatives included support for the homeless, affordable housing for low-income residents, and protections for women's rights.
Her path down the road of advocate for the rights of the less fortunate began during that galvanizing period of World War II when she worked in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. Witnessing firsthand the wrongs of racist paranoia changed her life. In the obituary for Mahaffey in the Detroit Free Press, her daughter Dooha is quoting as saying, “It was such a powerful lesson about injustice and human rights that it was really a touchstone for the rest of her life ... about basic justice for human beings.”
Mahaffey was also an unflagging supporter of labor in the period starting in the 1970s when the bottom first began to drop out of working-class prosperity, a time when workers were being excused from their place at the table of the American abundance that had been pioneered by the automobile unions in Detroit. (Indeed, sociologist Daniel Bell famously called the 1950 union contract between General Motors and the UAW the "Treaty of Detroit," the cessation of class war that ushered in rising standards of living for a generation of workers across the nation.) She maintained this commitment until the end, and as recently as the mid-1990s was arrested for taking part in a sit-in against the Detroit News during the newspaper strike, which tore an already beleaguered city apart.
Detroit has lost one its greats. Anyone looking to define themselves as progressive in this town (not that too many are lining up for that duty these days) would do well to study her example.
For more information on this remarkable Detroiter, click on Mahaffey's homepage on the Detroit City Council's website.
Addendum: Peering into the memory hole
When doing my research for thedetroiter.com obituary at the passing of City Councilwoman Maryann Mahaffey, I noticed something peculiar. The Detroit Free Press version of Mahaffey's obit reported on her lifelong commitment to unionism, while the Detroit News didn't. The difference in coverage wasn't what struck me. After all, in the old days, when the Freep was ostensibly liberal and the News was the conservative "Old Gray Lady" down the street, that would almost have been expected. The thing that caught my attention was the mention in the Freep about Mahaffey demonstrating her labor bona fides by getting herself arrested in front of the News building during the 1995 Detroit newspaper strike. At the time of the strike, the News was owned by Gannett, which now owns the Freep. And it was Gannett that led the union-busting jihad that pretty much ruined two papers that were already suffering from a nationally consolidating media market. Now the Freep obliquely points a finger at their competition for something that happened on Gannett's watch. It's a move that would do Orwell's character Winston Smith proud.
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