Community recalls impact, contributions of environmental, social justice activist Dr. Marty Nathan

  • STAFF FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS STAFF FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Dr. Marty Nathan is shown at right, with her three children, Mulugetta Fratkin, left, Masaye Fratkin, top center, and Leah Nathan, husband Elliot Fratkin and two grandchildren in an undated family photo. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/30/2021 7:30:44 PM
Modified: 11/30/2021 7:30:11 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Tributes are pouring in to celebrate the life and work of Dr. Marty Nathan, a retired physician and trailblazing social justice activist who died Monday at the age of 70.

Nathan’s daughter Leah Nathan said her mother died after a recurrence of lung cancer combined with congestive heart failure. She leaves behind her husband, three children and two grandchildren.

Martha “Marty” Nathan 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 wrote a monthly column for the Gazette on the topic of climate change.

In June, the Gazette and the United Way of Hampshire County honored Nathan with the Frances Crowe Award, named for the legendary Northampton peace and anti-nuclear activist who died in 2019 at the age of 100. Nathan considered Crowe a friend and ally for 25 years, saying the pair “were inhabiting the same ideological and political territory.”

Leah Nathan said her mother “invested everything she had” in causes that mattered to “the people and planet she loved.”

In Nathan’s memory, loved ones should “get involved and just do something to make the change you want to see in the world,” and donate to worthy organizations.

“She was uncompromising in her beliefs, her commitment to justice, her love for her family, and doing the work that real change requires of us,” Leah Nathan said. “She was both complex and crystal clear, and the physical loss of her energy feels impossible to bear.”

Nathan’s advocacy began in the 1960s, when she protested against the Vietnam War, and it never abated. Just six weeks ago, she and three other local activists were arrested in Washington, D.C., for standing in front of the White House fence as part of a climate protest. After they were released without fines or charges, each donated money to the Indigenous Environmental Network, which organized the protest.

Russ Vernon-Jones, an organizer with Climate Action Now, was also arrested that day; he said Nathan was “an inspiration to me. She was such a model of determination and commitment and justice.”

“If she had never done this kind of activism, it would still be a huge loss,” he said, considering what a “warm, caring, generous, compassionate human being she was.”

Nathan retired last year from her work as a family physician at Baystate Brightwood Health Center in Springfield due to health problems; she continued to treat undocumented and uninsured immigrants through the La Cliniquita program.

She was born in Westerville, Ohio, and lived briefly in the suburbs of Chicago before attending Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. She attended medical school at Duke University in North Carolina and moved to Northampton in 1995.

Tragedy inspired giving

Nathan’s time in North Carolina would end up dramatically impacting her life.

In 2009, Nathan and fellow activist Arky Markham founded the Markham-Nathan Fund for Social Justice, which has awarded more than $300,000 in grants to small western Massachusetts nonprofits that help low-income and marginalized people. Amid the pandemic, fund organizers started the COVID-19 Relief and Organizing Grant Program, offering direct aid to those most affected by COVID-19.

Nathan and Markham dedicated the fund to the memory of their husbands, who were among the five anti-racism protestors shot and killed by Klansmen and American Nazis on Nov. 3, 1979, in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Television cameras captured the one-sided violence, and police — who had advance warning of the massacre from a paid informant but were not present — eventually arrived to arrest anti-racist demonstrators. The shooters were acquitted of all charges and prevailed in a federal civil rights trial.

In 1985, a wrongful death lawsuit found eight people, including shooters and police officials, liable for the death of just one victim, pediatrician Michael Nathan.

The city of Greensboro paid Marty Nathan $351,000, which she split between victims’ families, the survivors of the massacre, the religious group that helped fund the lawsuit, and a legal aid organization for victims of racial violence. She told The New York Times, “This isn’t a settlement. We proved police complicity and they paid in full.”

When a Klansman named David Matthews shot Michael Nathan, the Nathans’ daughter, Leah, was six months old.

Marty Nathan remarried and moved to Northampton when her second husband, Elliot Fratkin, got a job at Smith College. The couple had two children together.

‘She lived her values’

Susan Theberge co-founded Climate Action Now with Nathan in 2012 and they worked together ever since.

The Greensboro Massacre “profoundly affected her life,” Theberge said. “In the wake of this trauma, Marty chose to keep her heart open and her passion for justice alive. Her generosity came shining through in so many ways, from feeding anyone who entered her home to raising money for grassroots social justice organizations to her commitment to La Cliniquita.”

Climate Action Now is “determined to honor her legacy by continuing the work we shared. We will miss her.”

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, praised Nathan as “a tireless warrior” who took “bold, unyielding, visionary action” to make the world a better place for all. She said that Nathan understood the intersections of major issues like poverty, racism and environmental degradation.

“Marty Nathan has been such a beacon in our community for so long,” Comerford said. “Her life was the embodiment of what she believed. She lived her values. Her actions matched her words.”

Comerford said that once she was elected to the state Senate in 2018, Nathan was the biggest influence on her own climate change views. One way to honor Nathan, she said, would be to work to advance her environmental priorities.

“Whether she was fighting for civil rights, worker and immigrant rights, peace and nuclear disarmament, the medically underserved or climate action, Marty Nathan was, at her core, a champion for justice,” Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said. “I am deeply saddened by Dr. Nathan’s loss on a personal level, for her family, and for our community.”

State Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, spoke to a reporter through tears, calling Nathan “one of the people I loved the most.”

“It has been a really hard 24 hours. I think the whole community is feeling sadness at her passing,” Sabadosa said. “What was special about her was the amount of love and compassion. She never thought she was better than you or purer than you. It was just about building” a better society.

She said Nathan could “cut through all the noise” of political issues that sounded complicated, but were actually simple, such as “we shouldn’t build a pipeline because it’s going to poison our water.”

When speaking with others who knew and loved Nathan, Sabadosa said that the “consistent theme” is that she inspired others to work toward social justice.

Less than a month before Nathan’s death, Sabadosa said they had run into each other in Northampton. Nathan told Sabadosa that she might have “pneumonia or another tumor,” but she still showed up at an event the next day in Hatfield to push for passage of the Fairness for Farmworkers Act.

Nathan spoke to a Gazette reporter that day, saying the bill is “necessary for a commonwealth with a conscience that is dedicated to the health of the public.”

After more than a decade of activism by Nathan and many others, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection in April revoked the air quality permit that had been given to Palmer Renewable Energy’s planned biomass power plant in Springfield.

At the time, Nathan said that her opposition to the plant was fueled by the two decades she spent as a physician in Springfield. She said the plant’s location was an example of environmental racism and classism, and that it would exacerbate the already high pediatric asthma rate in the city.

Using the words of a friend, Leah Nathan said that her mother “wasn’t a firecracker. She was a rocket launcher.” But aside from her “intensity of purpose” in political activism, she “probably unwittingly set some record for reading mystery novels.”

She was “a joyful and diligent gardener, could never wear too much purple, and had a lifelong passion for the natural world, particularly the ocean,” Leah Nathan said. “In her partnership with her husband, Elliot, their children and grandchildren, as well as the friends that are woven inextricably throughout, she was able to build a truly remarkable life.”

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