Marilyn Clement, Founder of Healthcare-NOW!, 1935-2009

By Jonathan Springston and Matthew Cardinale, The Atlanta Progressive News (August 08, 2009)

(APN) ATLANTA – Marilyn Clement, tireless activist and founder and former national coordinator of Healthcare NOW!--a group which advocates for single-payer universal health care--passed away Monday, August 03, 2009, after a long fight with multiple myeloma. She was 74.

Prior to moving to New York in 1968, Clement spent several years as an Atlanta-based activist for peace, civil rights, and social justice. She worked directly with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Marilyn's life and work was dedicated to social justice," Healthcare NOW! said in a statement. "She worked tirelessly to build, speak, and spread the word about meaningful civil rights and healthcare reform. Her leadership, vision, and passion helped to strengthen the recognition of healthcare as a human right throughout the nation."

Clement was born in 1935 in Tulia, Texas to sharecropping parents who raised her in the Methodist Church. She later attributed this upbringing to sparking her passion for activism.

After receiving her education at McMurray College in Abilene, Clement moved to Atlanta, where she quickly became friends with Margie Rece. Rece also spent several years as an activist in Atlanta and Augusta, Georgia, and today is an Atlanta-based activist with the Atlanta chapter of Healthcare-NOW.

"I've known Marilyn since the 1960s," Rece told Atlanta Progressive News. "My family was in Atlanta from 1963 to 1967. Marilyn came in the fall of 1964. She had come from Dallas, where she was working with the Democratic Women. They were awaiting President John F. Kennedy's arrival. They had a banquet set up, and while they were preparing the tables they heard he had been shot," Rece recalled.

"She came to the Church of the Covenant in Cobb County. It was a church of all different denominations. We reached out to the community, Black and White. We had very innovative services, it was very open. We celebrated our being together, we did Bible study, we also saw Virginia Woolf as a group," Rece said.

"It was probably a business move on the part of her husband," to come to Atlanta, Rece said. "When she came here, she started looking around. I don't even know how she found us. She was part of a pretty active Methodist church all of her life in Texas."

"When she first walked into the room with her three children, she said, we've just heard the best singing group, and they're called the Beatles," Rece said. The Beatles had just started getting played on the radio in the US.

While in Atlanta, Clement became involved with Atlanta’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). During her time with the SCLC, she worked on poverty and civil rights while working directly with Dr. King.

"We knew Hosea Williams, I saw Andy Young at events, all the people who were working with him [King] at that point," Rece said. "We went to a lot of events, when he spoke of his acceptance of getting the Nobel Peace Prize. I went to another event with her in a downtown hotel. Sidney Poitier was there. It was time to introduce King and the singer wouldn't give up the microphone. That was Aretha Franklin and she was just starting out."

Clement "was still [working] with King when he was assassinated. She went through the bombings and everything, she was part of everything over here," Rece said.

Rece moved to Augusta in the late 1960s, where Rece started anti-war organizing around the military base there. Meanwhile, Clement was among the first anti-war activists in Atlanta. "The beginning of the anti-war movement started over here, before King spoke out about it. And Julian Bond spoke about it first," Rece said.

"I was in Augusta and was organizing against the war there, because it was a military base. I frequently stayed with Marilyn or her family. She was always having interesting speakers in her home," Rece said.

In 1968, Clement moved with her family to Queens, New York where she connected with activists and life-long friends Peggy Billings and the Rev. Lucius Walker, Jr., who describes Clement as “a friend and inspiration. She was prophetic, demanding justice without fear or inhibition.”

Clement served as the associate director of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), a national ecumenical foundation committed to the support of community organizing, from 1968 to 1975.

From 1976-1989, Clement served as the Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York. While there, Clement continued working with the IFCO and founded the Anti Klan Network, a group that works against the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis.

Clement reflected on her time with the CCR at the organization’s 35th anniversary in 2002. "The proudest achievement for me was the creation of the Ella Baker Student Program. I thought of it in the midst of Miss Baker’s funeral in Harlem. I was deeply moved by the dozens of leaders of the Civil Rights Movement arrayed together all on one platform telling the story of this unsung hero, this tiny powerful woman."

Baker had encouraged students to become involved in the fight for student rights, a movement that eventually led to the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

"The Ella Baker Student Intern Program succeeded and still succeeds, magnificently," Clement said in 2002. "Hundreds of students have trained in the program ... they are scattered throughout the progressive legal landscape."

In the early 1990s, Clement formed a forerunning organization to Healthcare NOW! called Health Care: We Gotta Have It, a group of women advocating for single-payer healthcare.

From 1994 to 1997, Clement lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she was in charge of the U.S. Section of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a human rights group.

Clement helped organize the WILPF Peace Train to the fourth International Women’s Congress in Beijing in 1995.

During a service on June 7, 2009 at the Judson Memorial Church in New York City, an event that highlighted Clement’s work, WILPF reflected on the Peace Train.

"Marilyn’s enthusiasm and determination in promoting the 1995 Peace Train brought a delegation of 230 women (and 10 men) on a three week journey across Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Great Steppes of China to the UN Conference on Women after stopping all along the way, meeting women of different cultures, listening to each others’ stories, then to carry the message to a gathering of women in Beijing who worked together to construct a Platform of Action which has resonated as a touchstone of activism for almost 15 years."

In 1999, Clement joined the Economic Justice Office – Women’s Division, of the General Board of Ministries of the United Methodist Church, where she united Methodist women in the United States with Methodists in Burma.

US Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) first introduced single-payer healthcare legislation in 2003, an event that led to the formation of Healthcare NOW! the same year with Clement serving as the national coordinator. He has re-introduced the bill every Session, as previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News.

"Michael Moore came to the office in New York and asked if we could get people to talk for that movie [Sicko]," Rece said.

As far as why she began to work on health care, "I think it was the next obvious thing that she saw in terms of what was happening," Rece said. "And I'm sure she was approached at some point by John Conyers. [Late US Sen.] Paul Wellstone had been doing work on this. John Conyers took it upon himself to start things in 2006. He recognized he needed an organization."

"I've heard him salute her, you can count on Clement, she knows what she's doing," Rece said.

Conyers and Healthcare-NOW began holding annual events around single payer universal health care in 2006. Rece, along with Rita Valenti and Dr. Henry Kahn headed up the Atlanta events, which were covered by Atlanta Progressive News. "When she [Clement] was working on health care with Conyers in 2006, she called me up," Rece said.

"She was the last person Coretta Scott King gave the Outstanding Woman award to," Rece added.

In June 2008, doctors diagnosed Clement with multiple myeloma and she had to scale back her work while she underwent treatment. During that time, nine Healthcare NOW! members formed a steering committee to take over leadership while Clement was sick.

"She called me last year and said Margie I have multiple myeloma. This year she made it through a birthday party and celebration, I went up there to be with her," Rece said.

Clement summed up her own work in a 2003 talk she delivered titled "How I Came to Work For the Common Good," which she said "is a wonderful way to live – a wonderful way to spend a lifetime."

"I entered that work through no virtue of my own, but through the mentoring and nurture, support and inspiration of a whole community of people all over the world,” she added. “A community that taught me not to be afraid, but to live with a sense of fearlessness. It included the movement for justice in my town, my country and around the world … all taught me to be unafraid."

Clement passed away Monday, surrounded by her children, Scott and Pam, and her daughter-in-law, Liz.

Clement is survived by her brother, Les Boydstun; her children Pam and Scott; her daughter-in-law Liz Arwine, widow of her deceased son Mark; and three grandchildren – Kendall, Chelsea, and Alex.

About the author:

Jonathan Springston, Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News, is reachable at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com. Matthew Cardinale, News Editor for Atlanta Progressive News, is reachable at matthew@atlantaprogressivenews.com

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