Harriet McBryde Johnson dies

Harriet McBryde Johnson drew national attention for her opposition to 'the charity mentality.'

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Harriet McBryde Johnson, a tenacious, well-known Charleston disability and civil rights attorney, died suddenly Wednesday. She was 50.

"She worked (Tuesday). It's a shock to everybody," said friend and attorney Susan Dunn.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal said Johnson was a fierce advocate for the disabled, a nationally revered attorney and a titanic figure in state legal history. "My heart was broken when I heard the news. I just wept. The world is a poorer place," Toal said. Johnson was remarkable because despite her disability, she regularly reached out to help and mentor other lawyers, Toal said.

Mayor Joe Riley described Johnson, who suffered from a congenital neuromuscular disease, as one of the most remarkable people he had ever known. She led a model life of achievement, he said. "She was so courageous in that she so quietly and humbly without any fanfare refused to allow her disability to prevent her from using her intellect," Riley said.

As an attorney, she mostly handled benefits and civil rights claims for poor and working people with disabilities. One of her clients and longtime friends was Dot Scott, a fellow civil rights activist and president of the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"I remember her very warmly. She had a keen sense of humor. She was so caring. She was no nonsense. She was just passionate about the issues surrounding disabilities," Scott said.

Johnson's father, David D. Johnson, said he spoke with Johnson by phone at about 10:30 p.m. Tuesday. "I'm a little stunned right now. I don't know what happened. I'm just in mourning," he said.

Johnson died in her sleep, he said. A private memorial service will be held in about six months. There will be no funeral, he said.

In her 2005 memoir, "Too Late to Die Young," she said it was the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon that sent her the message, for the first time, that her neuromusclular disease would kill her. As a result, she began living her childhood in tiny increments, marking time with thoughts such as, "When I die, I might as well die a kindergartner."

Johnson drew national attention for her opposition to "the charity mentality" and "pity-based tactics" of the annual Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon. She protested the telethon for nearly 20 years.

"Jerry Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association are sorry to hear about the passing of Ms. Johnson, an accomplished woman and an advocate for the disabled community. We offer her family our sincere condolences," said Roxan Triolo Olivas, assistant director of public information for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Johnson, who resided at 23 Montagu St., described herself as a disabled, liberal, atheistic Democrat. "I'm really amazed at what I can get away with. Charleston is very tolerant of what it sees as eccentricity," she said.

She loved to zoom around the city streets in her power wheelchair.

She was known for being blunt, opinionated and smart. She called it her "argumentative nature." She sparred with Princeton University's famous and controversial bioethicist, Peter Singer, in a cover story for the New York Times Magazine.

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

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. She was a member of the board of directors of Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities and served on the steering committee of the National Lawyer's Guild.

In addition to her father, survivors include her mother, Ada A. Johnson, and her siblings, Elizabeth Ross Johnson, David McBryde Johnson, Eric Austin Johnson and Ross L. Johnson.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at pfindlay@postandcourier.com or 937-5711.