Dozens celebrate Marty Nathan’s ‘fierce’ activism at Northampton gathering

  • Paul Bermanzohn, a survivor of the 1979 Greensboro massacre, speaks with other friends and loved ones of Dr. Marty Nathan at a celebration of her life in Florence on Sept. 18, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/BRIAN STEELE

  • State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, at a celebration of life honoring Dr. Marty Nathan in Florence on Sept. 18, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/BRIAN STEELE

  • Friends and family of Dr. Marty Nathan gather at a reception following the celebration of her life in Florence on Sept. 18, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/BRIAN STEELE

  • Elliot Fratkin, widower of Dr. Marty Nathan, at a celebration of her life in Florence on Sept. 18, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/BRIAN STEELE

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/18/2022 8:45:23 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Dr. Martha “Marty” Nathan could not be silenced, pushed aside, bought off or scared away from her social justice work, friends and family said during a celebration of the groundbreaking activist’s life on Sunday.

Laughter filled the sanctuary of Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence over and over during the afternoon event that drew more than 100 people. But there were plenty of quiet tears, as well, as speakers including state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, expressed their love for Nathan and their appreciation for her lifelong advocacy on behalf of others.

Comerford called Nathan a “prophet” and a “fierce and remarkable woman who never stopped working for justice and peace.” She said Nathan, whom she met around 1999, was a “lightning bolt” that served to “jolt” others into taking urgent action for the environment and social change.

Nathan died Nov. 29, 2021, at the age of 70 after a recurrence of lung cancer combined with congestive heart failure. She was a co-founder of Climate Action Now, the founder of the environmental activism group 2degrees Northampton and a board member of the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition. She also wrote a monthly column for the Daily Hampshire Gazette on the topic of climate change.

Before her retirement in 2020, she was a physician at Brightwood Health Center in Springfield and a founder of La Cliniquita, which provides health care to undocumented and uninsured immigrants. Despite health problems, she continued her work at La Cliniquita after she retired, and some of her partners in the clinic spoke on Sunday.

Nathan’s widower, Elliot Fratkin, led the speaking portion of the event and introduced musicians who played protest songs. He pointed out the many elected officials in attendance and said, “I’m really happy because it shows the extent of Marty’s reach.”

He recalled that, in the month before her death, Nathan insisted on driving to Washington, D.C., to take part in a massive climate change demonstration.

“I urged her not to go because of her heart and her health, that there would be thousands of people there and it would be fine if she didn’t show up,” Fratkin remembered. “But she said no: they need her and she needs them. ‘I need to be there. I don’t have long to live. Let me do this one last march.’”

Fratkin, who fell in love with Nathan “at first sight” in 1984, said she grew up in a religious household but lost her faith in God after the death of her sister from leukemia. Nathan, 15 at the time, said she was outraged that the minister at the funeral told her the death was part of “God’s plan,” according to Fratkin, and never attended another religious service for her own purposes.

She did, however, continue to draw inspiration from the biblical Sermon on the Mount and other admonitions to help the poor.

“In truth, Marty loved everyone,” Fratkin said, “except those who are isolators, who are selfish, who are racist or male supremacist. She was intolerant of wealth and power. … She hated capitalism with a fiery passion.”

Comerford said that Nathan was a proponent of the Fair Share Amendment, sometimes called the “millionaire’s tax,” that will appear as a ballot question for general election voters in Massachusetts, and she supported giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, which is another issue before voters on Nov. 8.

In the early days of their side-by-side activism, Comerford said, she and Nathan heard that the Department of Homeland Security was monitoring left-wing organizations like their own, so they compiled dossiers on themselves and “turned ourselves in to the FBI and the NSA.” When they arrived at the federal building in Springfield, Comerford said, agents were waiting for them because they somehow knew the group was coming.

“Marty lived her values,” she said.

Greensboro survivors speak

Ten years before she moved to Northampton with Fratkin in 1995, Nathan and others successfully sued members of the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis and the police in Greensboro, N.C., for their collusion in the murders that became known as the Greensboro massacre, which left her first husband, pediatrician Michael Nathan, and four others dead.

The shooting at an anti-racism protest on Nov. 3, 1979, did not lead to any convictions — in fact, all the shooters were acquitted and then prevailed in a federal civil rights trial — but the city of Greensboro paid Nathan $351,000 for the actions of the police, which she used to support survivors, victims’ families and social justice causes by directing the Greensboro Justice Fund for 15 years.

According to organizers of Sunday’s event, the fund gave away a total of $500,000 in grants to small nonprofits fighting for civil rights in the South.

Paul and Sally Bermanzohn, both survivors of the Greensboro massacre, were in attendance at Bombyx.

Paul Bermanzohn is still partially paralyzed from gunshots to his head and arm, and he wore a Greensboro Justice Fund T-shirt. He said that during the first trial of the Greensboro killers, Nathan stood up and loudly accused the court of perpetrating a fraud; she served 30 days in jail for contempt of court.

“It was very clear that the court wanted to protect the status quo and to preserve order, not to promote justice” for the Klansmen and Nazis “who are on videotape killing us,” Paul Bermanzohn said, adding that a lawyer representing the survivors made several improper statements to the media criticizing his own clients’ political views.

Sally Bermanzohn had dated Michael Nathan in the 1970s before he was with Marty, and he and Paul were close friends. Details of the messy personal relationships drew titters from the crowd, but the room fell silent as she recalled the harrowing day when her friends and fellow activists were murdered in broad daylight on a public street. Police, who were nowhere near the scene of the violence despite receiving advance notice, eventually came to arrest survivors.

When Michael Nathan died, he and Marty had a six-month-old child and Sally was pregnant.

“We struggled together to care for our daughters and our families,” she said. “That’s how we became very close friends, was getting through those terrible, sad years.”

In 2009, Nathan and fellow activist Arky Markham founded the Markham-Nathan Fund for Social Justice, similar in scope and purpose to the Greensboro fund. The pair also co-founded the Northampton Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the Pioneer Valley Coalition Against Secrecy and Torture, and the Pioneer Valley Coalition to Prevent War on Iran.

Thanks in large part to Nathan’s activism, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection last year revoked the air quality permit that had been given to Palmer Renewable Energy’s planned biomass power plant in Springfield. On Sunday, Springfield City Council President Jesse Lederman attended the celebration of life event in Florence.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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