Published: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 at 2:38 p.m.
Forty years after her jolting death on the farm-labor picket lines in Belle Glade, a New College student activist is being remembered this week for her contribution to human rights.
A candlelight vigil is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the New College Robert and Beverly Koski Academic Plaza, outside the Academic Center at 5800 Bay Shore Road in Sarasota.
Sabbat services for Freeman are set for 5:30 p.m. Friday at Temple Beth Israel, 567 Bay Isles Road, Longboat Key.
Largely forgotten outside the United Farm Workers movement, where she was eulogized as a martyr by legendary organizer Cesar Chavez, Nan Freeman will be honored in two Sarasota memorial services by a community that continues to press for field-laborer rights.
As an 18-year-old freshman, Freeman was one of five New College students who traveled to Belle Glade in support of migrant workers striking against 12-hour shifts, seven-days-a-week working conditions at Talisman Sugar Company in Belle Glade. While distributing leaflets outside Talisman’s front gate, she was fatally struck by a sugar cane truck in the early hours of Jan. 25, 1972.
Author and New Yorker reporter Alec Wilkinson revisited the incident in his 1989 book, “Big Sugar,” in which Talisman and the Florida Highway Patrol suggested Freeman had been killed elsewhere and deposited at the front gate. Wilkinson dismissed the claim as “ghoulish and inexplicable.”
The death was ruled accidental and no charges were filed.
On Wednesday at 7 p.m., a memorial is being held at New College by students supporting the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who are pressuring supermarket chains like Publix to upgrade sub-poverty wages and Spartan working conditions for tomato harvesters. A 5:30 p.m. service is set for Friday at Temple Beth Israel on Longboat Key.
Freeman was a National Merit Scholar who observed Jewish dietary laws and won a John F. Kennedy Award from the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. She distinguished herself by, among other things, volunteering at a Sarasota day-care center and working for a halfway house in North Carolina. But her actions, and her untimely death, languished in obscurity until one of her contemporaries took note of the approaching anniversary.
New College alumnus Jono Miller, who now serves as assistant to the vice president, was Freeman’s classmate and remembers when the news of her death spread across campus. Miller brought her story to the attention of Jordan Buckley, who supports Florida’s migrant workers via Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, a network of religious and faith-based institutions. Buckley’s appeals to Sarasota audiences are largely responsible for this week’s tributes to Freeman.
“In addition to being the state honors college, New College has a rich history of standing with the oppressed,” said Buckley, recalling how students opened their dorms in 2000 to 60 marchers on a 230-mile journey from Fort Myers to Orlando to lobby the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association for more equitable farm-labor terms. “These students have done a wonderful job in trying to push corporations to the right side of history.”
Freeman’s sacrifice resonates most poignantly with a group of New College activists called Students Working for Equal Rights, who only recently learned about the 40-year-old tragedy. SWER, a national student movement, will use Wednesday’s memorial to circulate petitions calling for the Publix supermarket chain to “create a more just, more humane agricultural industry.”
Eight New College SWER members gathered Monday to share their glimpses of bleak migrant-worker living conditions in Immokalee. They support farmworker calls for adding a penny per pound increase in pay for tomatoes picked, as well as a “code of conduct” that provides shade for fatigue and lunch breaks, plus independent review of abuse and harassment charges.
Claire Comiskey, a 21-year-old senior from Milwaukee, pointed out that major food providers such as Taco Bell, McDonalds and Whole Foods have already agreed to work only with farms that comply with those conditions.
“This isn’t unreasonable — these are just minimal standards,” said Comiskey, who has joined demonstrations outside Publix in Sarasota and elsewhere. “I think most shoppers would be ashamed if they knew how the people who picked their food were treated.”
Composed of 4,000 members, mainly from Mexico and Guatemala, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has documented seven successful federal prosecutions of “slave labor farms” since 1997. Prosecution of two more Florida cases begun in 2010 is ongoing.
“Nan Freeman was working on something similar to this a long time ago, but things improve in small ways,” said 19-year-old Wesley Beggs of Tampa. “I fully anticipate a win against Publix.”
Publix did not respond to a query by the Herald-Tribune, but has said in the past it has a policy of avoiding “the labor disputes of our suppliers.”