How One Teenage Student in Florida Became The First Martyr Of Cesar Chavez’ Farm Workers
Students have been leading the way in the Occupy Movement—just part of a long tradition of young people leading protest movements in America.
Forty years ago this week, a freshmen at New College of Florida became the first of five martyrs of Cesar Chavez’ United Farm Workers.
Four are men. All farm workers.
One is Nan Freeman, an 18-year-old who was killed while picketing at a sugar mill in Palm Beach County.
At school, people called her “Morning Glory,” because they liked to say she made their mornings glorious.
Freeman was born premature and almost didn’t make it home from the hospital. She was always fragile, and from a very young age, dedicated to fighting injustice.
After her death, the Sarasota Herald Tribune described her this way:
“She wasn’t a dope taker, a setter of fires, a bomb planter, or a screamer of epithets. But she believed in people, in causes, and in its purest and most ennobling sense, love of her fellow man.”
On January 25, 1972 Nan Freeman was picketing with farm workers at the Talisman Sugar Plant in Belle Glade, the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee.
About 250 sugar cane haulers and truck drivers had walked out of their jobs, protesting the company’s refusal to negotiate working conditions.
Jono Miller is a New College alum who went to school with Freeman. He said, at the time, people didn’t associate farm worker issues with Florida.
He said students were dimly aware that the grape boycott out of California had just ended. That the lettuce boycott had just begun.
“But the main political issue on everyone’s mind was the Vietnam War,” Miller said.
And while students were holding massive protests against the war, Nan Freeman was handing out leaflets to sugar cane workers who broke from the strike.
At 3:15AM, a strike-breaker who may or may not have had experience driving the 70,000 pound trucks hauling sugar cane accidentally hit Freeman while turning into the sugar mill.
For the young farm worker movement, Nan Freeman, a teenage Jewish girl from Massachusetts, became its first martyr.
The movement’s leader, Cesar Chavez, wrote a eulogy for Freeman.
It said, “Nan Freeman is Kadosha in the Hebrew tradition, a holy person, to be honored and remembered for as long as Farm Workers struggle for justice.”
Tanis Ybarra, a United Farm Workers member since 1970, says Cesar Chavez was heartbroken by Freeman’s death.
“Let’s remember that Cesar’s whole being was about non-violence,” Ybarra said. “To the point that he was a vegetarian, right? To Cesar, life was precious. The fact that it was a young Jewish woman, he took it even harder because she was supporter and she was just, she was so young.”
Chavez met with the Freeman family in Massachusetts after Freeman’s death. But before that, he wrote them a letter.
“It came as a telegram,” said Nan’s older sister Liz Freeman.
“Telegrams sometimes they can call you or deliver the message and this says, “Do not call. Make sure you deliver the message. Do not phone it.”
“Dear Mrs. & Mrs. Freeman, we are gathered here at our headquarters at La Paz to honor your daughter Nan, who lost her life while serving farm workers. There are no words to say what we have in our hearts. We would lighten your pain if we could. We can only express our solidarity and promise to remember Nan’s immeasurable gift and to work harder to make our farm workers movement worthy of her love and her sacrifice.”
Liz said Nan was the kind of person who wrote hundred page school reports over winter break, and skipped collecting her allowance as a child—until she needed it.
“My brother and I, we made sure every Sunday night we collected from our dad. She didn’t even bother,” she said. “But when there was a new Beatles album, you better believe that she went and collected. And here she was this serious, serious student. But she would quote Beatles songs in her reports.”
On Wednesday night, about 50 people gathered at New College of Florida, Nan’s alma mater, to share her story at a candlelight vigil.
Claire Comiskey is with the campus group Students Working for Equal Rights that helped organize the vigil.
Comiskey said the group works with farm workers in Immokalee, Fla. to fight for higher tomato prices.
“This was 40 years ago that she died, but in many ways we are fighting in the same type of struggle,” Comiskey said. “We definitely identify with Nan’s commitment to farm worker justice.”
She said Nan’s story has inspired her to give more of herself to the cause, “because Nan gave everything.”