Martyrs for a Just Cause: The Eulogies of Cesar Chavez
Jensen, Richard J., Burkholder, Thomas R., Hammerback, John C., Western Journal of Communication
ON JANUARY 25, 1972, Nan Freeman, an eighteen-year-old Jewish college student from Massachusetts, was walking a picket line at the entrance to the Talisman Sugar Plant about twenty miles north of Belle Glade, Florida, during a United Farm Workers (UFW) strike. Freeman was a "bright, inquisitive student" whose interests "were focused on the needs of her fellow human beings" ("The Martyrs"). She was a National Merit Scholar who had won an award from the Massachusetts AFL-CIO for her knowledge of labor history. In college she continued to study the struggles of working class people and became interested in the farm worker movement in Florida ("The Martyrs"). Freeman and other students had "been doing volunteer work for the UFW at [her] college in Sarasota as part of the REAL program, a research program into Florida agriculture" ("Nan Freeman"). She had volunteered to help the UFW in its picketing, and along with another student, she was helping pass out materials to workers and truck drivers who entered the plant. Their job was to talk with the drivers and encourage them to join the strike ("Nan Freeman").
The pickets had often complained that the trucks were overloaded and were driven by "inexperienced strikebreakers" ("The Martyrs"). They had "complained to police of speeding that deliberately splashed mud and water on the striking workers, run stop signs and other violations" ("The Martyrs"). The police had taken no action ("The Martyrs"). Freeman and her friend had stopped a truck and were talking to the driver when a second truck entered the gate. The driver who was talking to the pickets started his vehicle and began to move out of the way of the second. His truck struck Freeman and knocked her unconscious. She died about an hour later (Jensen and Hammerback, 162; "Nan Freeman").
When he learned of her death, UFW leader Cesar Chavez sent a telegram to Freeman's parents expressing his sorrow and pledging that the union would never forget their daughter's sacrifice: "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 sacrifice" ("Telegram").
Throughout the history of the United States there have been confrontations, violent or otherwise, between dissenters arguing for change and members of the establishment who opposed them. Occasionally, members of activist groups, like Nan Freeman, were killed or seriously injured in those confrontations. Some of those killed became martyrs for their cause, not through their own deliberate actions, but rather through the rhetorical actions of the leaders of their various movements.
Martyrs have played prominent roles in social movements, becoming, according to Jules Abels, "the symbol, the living personification of suffering needed by the cause" (quoted in Burkholder, 295). Because of their power as symbols, martyrs have provided leaders of social movements with sources of potent appeals in support of their causes. Those spokespersons, Nyal J. Naveh writes, have "used the familiar image of the martyr to give meaning to specific tragedies" and events (5). Because of the nature of the martyrs' deaths, leaders of movements have organized public ceremonies like funerals and rallies that "cement" the members of the organization together and turn the individual into "a mythical martyred hero" (158). Kurt W. Ritter says that these ceremonies, particularly the funerals for martyrs, have "altered the victims' status" from individuals with "no public reputation prior to their deaths" to heroes for their cause (114-36).
Historian Lacey Baldwin Smith states that to "some degree all martyrs are products of and victims of both the role models they seek to fulfill and the judgments placed upon them by those who record and interpret their actions and motives" (373). Many individuals, like those who gave their lives in support of political causes or in the name of the early Christian Church, actively sought martyrdom, often going to great lengths to ensure that their actions and motives were interpreted as they intended. …