Regina Pyrko McNulty (1923-2016)
— Dianne Feeley
BORN IN DETROIT’S working-class Poletown neighborhood on Grandy Street, Reggie McNulty grew up in a household where her parents were free thinkers. Her father worked at Ford and later at Packard; her mother cleaned homes. Although money was scarce, Reggie’s mother “could make soup out of anything that grew.” At night her father would read to her mother as she mended socks or ironed. Or they would listen to the radio. But by the time Reggie was in high school, her mother died.
Reggie graduated from Northeastern High School in 1941 and went to work in a defense plant for General Motors. Marrying right after World War II, she was a single mother of two (Kathleen and Kevin) by the 1950s. She worked as a clerk at the city of Oak Park District Court. In those years she kept a tight rein over her limited funds, walking to and from work.
The Road to Activism
Following the 1967 Detroit rebellion, Reggie became active with Focus Hope. She volunteered to work on a project comparing food prices in the suburbs to those in Detroit. The survey revealed that the quality of food was better and the price cheaper in the suburbs.
That then led to activism against the war in Vietnam in the late ’60s, beginning with gathering thousands of signatures at the State Fair for a peace treaty with the Vietnamese. She attended meetings, workshops and demonstrations.
Zolton Ferency, state chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, was the first Democrat to publicly criticize President Johnson’s war policies. In the summer of 1970 the MDP convention passed resolutions calling for amnesty for draft resisters and the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. The following day several of the highest office holders disassociated themselves from the amnesty plank and back-pedaled on the issue of immediate withdrawal. Within two months three high-ranking “maverick” Democrats including Zolton Ferency founded the Human Rights Party of Michigan.
The party’s preamble declared it to be a democratic, socialist people’s party and saw itself as both an electoral and non-electoral formation. Reggie was proud of its women’s caucus that it promoted instant runoff voting. Reggie threw herself into the work of the party. As she recounted, “The HRP was the most exciting thing in my life. I truly believed we would change Michigan and then the country, which in turn would make the world a safer place.” (40)
In 1972 the HRP supported Dr. Benjamin Spock’s presidential run and two of its candidates won office on the Ann Arbor City Council. In 1974 it ran Ferency for governor and Reggie for lieutenant governor. However the party did not survive. Reggie analyzed the factors that led to its decline and went on with her activism.
Beside Zolton Ferency, Reggie’s other greatest hero was Tommy Douglas, the crusading pioneer of Canada’s single-payer health insurance system.
She marched against nuclear power and the wars in Central America and the Middle East, had ideas for building forums, wrote letters, supported petitions and referenda and boycotted plastic bags, Styrofoam and lawn fertilizers. She was willing to put her money into political causes, contributing $1,000 to Michael Moore when he was raising funds for his first documentary “Roger and Me.” (You can find her name in the credits.)
Reggie was a founding member of Solidarity and proofread Against the Current for more than a dozen years. She constantly pushed her latest, always big and bold ideas about how to build broad events that could have an impact — for universal health care, for abolishing toxic lawn care chemicals or for electoral reform.
In her retirement she enjoyed going to movies and art fairs, trying out new restaurants and dressing in style. Reggie was an excellent cook and baker, bringing her food to movement potlucks. She was an impatient woman, frustrated in the knowledge that she would die before the radical change she wanted would come. Declining health finally curtailed her activity in the past few years.
From a memoir Reggie wrote, she told a story about petitioning to put the Green Party on the ballot:
“I arrived at a market early in the morning and saw only one man in the parking area. He appeared to be from a very orthodox religion, and I decided not to approach him (but) something nudged me, I realized I was not being fair. I greeted him and told him what I was doing. I explained that I was concerned with the environment and chemicals and that it was in the interest of democracy that he might sign. He replied that we have ‘better living through chemistry.’
“I was appalled, and asked whether he knew anyone who had cancer. He turned to me and said, ‘Yes. my mother.’ I was sorry I had caused him pain. However, when he came out of the market, he approached me and signed my petition. It is my feeling everyone can be reached on the issue of health and organizing on the level of the environment is the way to build alliances.”
Especially proud of her “Red Squad” file maintained by the Michigan State Police Subversive Activities Division, Reggie commented, “They are the only ones who kept track of all the cool things I did.”
May-June 2017, ATC 188