The people of Detroit are mourning the death of City Council President Maryann Mahaffey, who for 31 years, until illness forced her retirement from office last December, was a selfless fighter for labor’s rights, peace, equality and justice. She died July 27 at the age of 81.
Among those quoted in the Detroit Free Press was her neighbor Walter Brown, who said, “She helped the ones who didn’t have a voice.” It was that quality which three times resulted in Mahaffey receiving the largest vote of all City Council candidates.
Her husband, Hy Dooha, told the World that Mahaffey, in addition to all of her humane concerns for people in Detroit, had a political awareness of issues in the world. She thought our social system was not working for the people, that too many people suffered from ills created by the system and that socialism should be considered, he said.
She was a peace activist who went to international peace meetings in Moscow, Prague and Mexico City, among other world cities. She went to socialist Cuba at the invitation of the mayor of Havana. She was arrested at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C., for protesting apartheid.
During the 1950s she collected signatures on the Stockholm Peace Appeal and later was active in the Detroit area committee to free Angela Davis.
During Augusto Pinochet’s brutal rule in Chile, she went to that country representing the National Association of Social Workers and smuggled money, hidden in her clothing, to give to Chilean social workers. “She was a very brave woman who really had no fear,” said Dooha.
Just two weeks before her death, and very weak from her illness, she participated in a rally against the Iraq war, holding her sign while leaning against a mailbox for support.
She fought to provide decent shelters for the homeless, once spending several nights in a sleeping bag in a tent city to make her point. Dooha said his wife went everywhere and at all hours to serve her city. She also fought for a rape crisis unit within the Detroit Police Department, supported the city’s living wage ordinance and helped expand the city’s health care benefits to include gay and lesbian couples.
One of the first experiences that taught Mahaffey that injustice must be fought was when, in 1945, she served as the recreation director at a Japanese internment camp in Arizona. She said she was “forever haunted by what could not be done, by the irreparable damage inflicted on an innocent, helpless, defenseless population.”
Her support for labor is legendary. During the bitter newspaper strike of 1995, Mahaffey was arrested after she and others blocked the entrance to the Detroit News during a sit-in.
In a statement released by labor leaders, Metro Detroit AFL-CIO President Saundra Williams said, “Maryann was a warrior like none other. She was always there for labor, carrying the torch for justice and fairness in the workplace. She was always on the right side of the issues — that is the ‘people’ side. She cared so deeply for people.”
David Hecker, president of the state’s American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement, “This country’s progressive movements lost a hero. I do not exaggerate when I say that Maryann was one of the greatest people to have walked this earth.”
He continued: “Maryann was a giant. Trade unionists, civil, human and women’s rights activists, workers for peace, people committed to the resurgence of Detroit and many others, whether they were honored to know her or not, have lost a great friend.”
A public memorial will be held Aug. 26 at the Detroit Opera House.