Dr. Martha Nathan, a 34-year-old North Carolina physician, is finished with waiting. Justice, or at least a portion large enough to be tasted, has come. In early November, 1979, her husband Michael Nathan, also a physician, died in a Greensboro, N.C., hospital of gun wounds after being shot during a demonstration against racism. Nathan was one of five labor organizers who were killed when members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazis opened fire. Television cameramen caught much of the action.
On June 8, a federal jury in Winston-Salem ruled that three Klansmen, three Nazis and two Greensboro police officers were liable for the death of Michael Nathan. They were ordered to pay Martha Nathan $355,100.
Full justice would have been served had the survivors of the other four slain activists had been compensated. Inexplicably, they were not. The four were members of the Communist Workers Party.
Despite the award to the widow of only one of the five victims, the June 8 verdict is a major civil-liberties victory. The jury, instructed by federal Judge Robert Merhige, decided that constitutional rights exist for citizens who meet in a peaceful rally, regardless of their politics.
While much of the public had been devouring the Claus von Bu low trial during the spring -- and with parts of the media finding money, sex and high society irresistible -- Martha Nathan and the team of plaintiffs and lawyers who brought the suit deserve lasting attention. More than $650,000 was needed to organize and carry out the suit. A national coalition -- from the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Council of Churches to the Congressional Black Caucus and the Christic Institute -- became a force that backed the Greensboro Civil Rights Fund and its case.
This was the third lengthy trial. In 1980, in a state court, six Klansmen and Nazis were acquitted of murder charges. In 1984, in a federal court, nine were found not guilty of civil rights conspiracy charges. Unlike the earlier trials, in which crucial witnesses and vital evidence were left unused by the government's prosecutors, the third trial dealt with the complicity of public officials. That was the breakthrough. The jury in the third trial found two Greensboro police officials liable because their paid informant organized and led the Klan-Nazi group to the attack at the same time the police were withdrawn from the site.
The suit filed by the Greensboro Fund was brought to court by lawyers and families of victims who retained the capacity to be shocked by the brazenness of hate groups and by the blind eye of government to those groups.
It was that capacity for anger which helped Martha Nathan become a director of the fund. Since 1979, she has not been practicing medicine. While raising her daughter Leah, who was an infant at the time of Michael's death, she joined others to work full time documenting the legal case. At her marriage in 1978, she was a graduate of Brown University -- where she had earned a full scholarship -- and Duke University Medical School.
Nathan appeared to be on her way to a comfortable, large-fee medical practice. But during her internship, she screened millworkers for brown lung and other industrial illnesses. She then went into general practice at a federally funded rural health clinic. "I was exposed to the diseases of poverty and occupational health hazards," she recalls. "It wasn't germs that were making many of my patients sick. I saw people who were sick simply because they were locked out of the economic system."
Her circle included Michael Nathan, a pediatrician from Silver Spring, who took part in civil rights and peace issues. Nathan had worked for a time in a clinic in the central highlands of Guatemala. "Mike believed the best thing he could do would be to work in this country," Martha Nathan remembers. "It was this country that was causing the majority of the problems in Central America."
At their marriage the two young doctors were bonded by their love, their idealism and a commitment to treating the poor while working politically to eliminate the causes of poverty. Martha Nathan is returning to medicine. She is staying faithful to the commitment.