Memorial honors artist, activist and journalist Nell Ranta, celebrates people’s artists of today
Courtesy of Jeff Ranta

OAKLAND, Calif. – Outside, the cool overcast day cast a somber pall. Inside, it felt as if the warm rays of the sun had graced the tribute to Nell Ranta, who passed late last year at age 100, and the rebirth of her beloved center, the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library/Community Center, closed for three years during the COVID pandemic.

Jubilant about the occasion’s significance and the tremendous turnout, Mama C, the event’s coordinator, said, “Sunday, May 28 was ‘D’ day for our community to ‘Step Out on Faith,’ to show up and show out. And so, it did.”

The event also recognized People’s World, the media outlet Nell cherished and for which she wrote. In Nell’s honor, progressive Bay Area artists, and samplings of their work as well as Ranta’s, were also celebrated.

Nell Ranta: Devoted mother, superb artist, journalist, and political activist. That’s how she was known ​in the labor movement and community circles. Those who knew her up close revealed the depths of her personal and political commitment, her extraordinary courage, compassion, and toughness.

Her son, Jeff​ Ranta​, recalled the time his mother dived in front of his out-of-control tricycle as it was headed down into a deep ditch, resulting in cuts and bruises all over her body. Or​,​ ​​when he came home innocently repeating the “n” word he had just picked up from ​another ​kid on the block​. “The only time my mom spanked me,” Jeff ​said. Jeff’s daughter, Molly Lynch, spoke passionately about her grandmother, Nell.

Jeff put up for display some of Nell’s artwork, including a powerfully beautiful, heart-rending one of a mother clutching her baby protectively, which Nell sold for five bucks, and was later displayed in ​many ​art books​.​

Also​,​​ ​high up on the walls so everyone could see them were five of Nell’s paintings depicting the faces of heroines of our nation’s labor, civil rights, and women’s movements, which have been on permanent display at the library.​ Featured was a stirring PowerPoint presentation of Nell’s life, prepared by Alexander Mao.

Also contributing to memories of Nell was Gail Ryall, retired librarian, long-time labor and community activist, and Nell’s close friend, who worked with her on many projects and campaigns over the years.

Nell Ranta was born in February 1922 in Vancouver, Wash. As a child, she lived in rural Wyoming and then in Harrington, Wash., before moving to Seattle in her teens. After graduating high school she started art school in Los Angeles, working as a restaurant server while trying for a scholarship. Nell’s lifelong devotion to organized labor began when after working long hours for low pay, she discovered unions when she got a job at a union restaurant.

When she didn’t win a scholarship, Nell returned to Seattle, where during World War II she worked at Boeing. In the late 1940s, she met her husband, Carl Ranta, at a Communist Party picnic. Over the years, the Ranta family moved to San Francisco and later to Elk Grove, Calif.

Besides a lifetime as an active Communist Party member and many years of writing for and distributing People’s World, Nell belonged to the NAACP and the Gray Panthers and was a longtime advocate for affordable housing and for people’s healthcare services. She campaigned for progressive candidates for public office and was active in the Elk Grove-South County Democratic Club for many years.

And during all those years, she also spent many hours in her art studio.

As a proud life-long member of the Communist Party, Nell was fond of saying, “I want to see socialism in my lifetime. When is it coming?”

Among artists receiving special recognition was Brooke Anderson, outstanding photojournalist and labor-community activist, whose probing coverage of movements for social, economic, racial, and climate justice can be found in media across the U.S., and who can be seen on many picket lines in the Bay Area and beyond.

Courtesy of Jeff Ranta

Anderson credited as an inspiration, renowned photojournalist David Bacon, whose award-winning photos documenting labor, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights appear in publications throughout the country. She also recognized labor partisan and People’s World journalist Marilyn Bechtel, who has covered struggles in which Anderson was involved.

Bacon, also known as a union organizer and political activist, presented a slide show and narration of his photographs depicting workers, particularly farmworkers and immigrant workers.

As if capturing what Nell displayed throughout her life, Bacon observed, “Racism is still alive and well. Economic inequality is greater now than it has been for half a century. War is a greater danger to humanity than ever.

“People are fighting for their survival. As a union organizer, I helped people fight for their rights as immigrants and workers. I’m still doing that as a journalist and photographer. We have to stand on the side of social justice – we should be involved in the world and unafraid to try to change it.”

Though he was unable to be present at the tribute, Art Hazelwood of the San Francisco Poster Syndicate created a beautiful poster of Nell Ranta, based on a photo taken at an affordable housing action, which was shared at the event.

Dr. Tolbert Small, the People’s Doctor, delivered heart-wrenching yet hopeful poems, including this one, Working Man:

I raised my family with a strong voice,

I taught them right from wrong.

I taught them dignity amidst poverty.

I taught them love and responsibility.

I taught them the meaning of struggle.

I built this nation.

I too am a working man.

I too am an American.

Dr. Small headed up the Black Panthers health clinic years back and in more recent years founded and ran the Harriet Tubman health clinic, where he personally tended to poor folk, well-paid union activists, and well-known progressive public officials.

Val Serrant, a world-traveled percussionist whose instruments include steel drums originating in Trinidad and Tobago, where he was born and raised, gave a history of the steel drums and performed a powerful rendition of his country’s music, which has had a seldom-recognized influence on the music of our nation.

In an exquisitely mellow voice, Ismael “Smiley” Parra, brilliant songwriter, singer, guitarist, labor-community activist, and professor closed the program:

Nell Ranta isn’t here today.

But we celebrate her life

And the many things she did for all

In her hundred years of life.

She always kept her vision

Of a world with no more strife

For all of us working people

And our brown-eyed children of the sun.


If you want to live in peace

Then you have to stop the wars

So the money used for death and tears

Will be used this way no more.

Nell Ranta understood these things

She fought for peace and more

For better pay and health care

For our brown-eyed children of the sun.

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Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.