Elizabeth “Betita” Sutherland Martinez spent her life fighting the death and destruction imposed by the White House and the Pentagon, from border jails to police barracks in every city and town across the United States. She used her powers as a gifted translator, editor, author, and organizer in opposition to racism and the brutality of empire building, and in agitation for an alternative society. Martinez stood up for the right of self-determination for colonized African nations, Vietnam, Latin America, the internal colonies of Indian reservations, and finally for the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. In each of these cases, Martinez stood in opposition to the powerful and held up the voices, dreams, and aspirations of those oppressed by the economic and political system of capitalism. Her opposition to imperialism and racism can be traced like a red thread throughout her life.
Born on December 12, 1925, Martinez grew up in a mostly white suburb outside of Washington DC and spoke Spanish at home with her Mexican father and white mother. She heard stories of the Mexican Revolution from her father, who had seen it unfold before moving to the United States. She remembered being forced to move to the back of a segregated bus with her father when she was a child—a critical moment in which she saw the possibility and need for building an alliance between Black and Latinx people to fight racism.
In 1946, Martinez became the first Latina to graduate from Swarthmore College, earning honors and a degree in history and literature. After graduation, she landed her dream job at the United Nations researching European colonialism in Africa to aid the great anticolonial struggles of the day. She helped her “subversive” boss “feed information to the Third World delegates with which they could embarrass the colonial powers.”1 It was then, she recalled, that her “Yankee-No spirit expanded into a global anti-imperialist consciousness.” “The more research I did, the more I understood colonialism and how it interfaced with racism,” she explained. “I wanted to fight that.”
Martinez’s unique contribution to building a left in the United States was her insistence on linking the struggles against war and empire with the struggle against racism. Martinez realized that decolonial work also had to happen right at home. “As black anti-racist protest intensified in the United States after the mid-1950s, I understood that to fight militantly against racism and for social justice, the black Civil Rights Movement was the place to be at that time.” After joining the defense of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leader Robert Williams in 1960, she began to volunteer with the New York Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). By then working as an editor at Simon and Schuster, Martinez convinced them to publish the photo book The Movement, featuring text by Lorraine Hansberry and all proceeds going to SNCC. This work, “one of the most treasured books of my early adulthood,” Angela Davis remembers, “helped to shape my understanding of the world.”2
The brutal killing of four Black girls in the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham by a group of racists sent Martinez—who then went by the name Liz Sutherland, using her mother’s middle name as her last name—headlong into the movement full time. In summer 1964, she traveled to Mississippi with thousands of others to help register Black voters. Upon her return, she edited Letters from Mississippi, a book of letters from young people who wrote about their experiences fighting racism in Mississippi. The letters were full of stories of the poverty and oppression that the activists witnessed. While there, she also worked as arts editor for the Nation, filing two articles on the Free Southern Theater, one of the cultural projects of the southern movement. She captured the role of art and culture, political organizing, and the everyday violence that Black southerners and anyone working with them faced on a daily basis. Following the theater on tour throughout Mississippi, she highlighted the dangers they all faced, noting in one instance that Stokely Carmichael had recently lost a car to a fire bomb and that his “present car has more than its share of bullet holes.”3
Her work in the movement included lifting up the voices that spoke to a generation and agitated for monumental changes. She helped Carmichael in his influential New York Review of Books article “What We Want” and later his autobiography Black Power, written with Charles Hamilton. She also edited James Forman’s autobiography, The Making of Black Revolutionaries. Davis highlighted the importance of this cross-racial alliance, but added that Martinez went further: “She dramatically refuted assumptions that racial or ethnic identities are always the anchors of antiracist movements. In fact, there are few Black people whose commitment and contributions to the Black movement have surpassed Betita’s.”4
Of the role of her own identity in the struggle, Martinez remarked: “I did not grapple with…being half Mexican and half white. The work said who I was. I had joined people, white alongside black, who were giving their lives to end a monstrous social evil—more than that, really; to humanize our entire society.” In her work during Freedom Summer and gathering volunteers and local activists to come to Atlantic City to support the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge, she had only rarely thought about her place in it all. “I did think, when driving at night in areas like the Delta, that I could get killed for civil rights work.”5 But the larger philosophical questions crept in as the movement evolved.
Martinez was hired by Forman to run the New York office of SNCC, which “consisted primarily of fund-raising, public relations, the media, and other support for the struggle in the South.” Martinez, 40 at the time, brought twenty years of political and organizational experience to this work, helping to guide the office of SNCC staff who were mostly in their 20s. She maintained the group’s sprawling funding base, which was largely Jewish, and was proud that this remained the case even after SNCC took a pro-Palestine position.6
At a staff meeting in 1965, Martinez met with Ella Baker to talk about the need for SNCC to think about its ideology, its worldview, and its principles, strategy, and tactics. While Martinez was hoping for a turn toward Marxism, SNCC “headed in a very different direction.” She recalled that “a faction of black SNCC members focused on the presence of white people on SNCC’s staff as a major problem, even the problem.” It eventually made sense to her that SNCC should be an all-Black organization, and she felt able to explain the importance of Black nationalism.7 This change in SNCC got her to thinking about her own identity and where she fit into the broader struggle against racism and empire in the United States. Martinez saw the struggle over the race of its staff as a proxy for a larger question of vision and strategy. “How to work justly against injustice. How to accomplish justice within an unjust system. How not to brutalize individual humans in the course of humanizing a brutal society. How in hell to make revolution in these United States. To put it in immediate terms: having won the vote and a certain desegregation, where on earth do we go from here?”8
Mike Davis remembers her role in his political education when they worked together against the Rockefellers’ banking behemoth and its role in Apartheid South Africa. Her internationalism expanded to include Cuba, and she traveled there in 1967 for a gathering of Latin American revolutionaries and SNCC people.9 She remembered seeing peasants “enjoying a sense of liberation” in the gilt-covered hotels of Havana—“those at the bottom of society [were] rising to the top.” Soon after, she wrote her first book, The Youngest Revolution: A Personal Report on Cuba.
In 1966, as a representative of SNCC, she joined the United Farm Workers March to Sacramento. Attempting to link Black and Brown struggles, she wrote a long paper titled “Black, White, and Tan” and sent it to SNCC’s Atlanta headquarters in June 1967. Martinez wondered, “How does a person who isn’t white—but not Black either—fit into the color scheme of this color-obsessed society?”10 She was considered white, she said, even though she did not see herself that way. She received no reply. By the end of the year, she stepped down as the head of the New York office. She continued to work in the office, but she was preparing for a major life change.
As SNCC extended its view of antiracist organizing and became, in her words, “much more ‘Third World,’” Martinez left for the Southwest. It was there, in 1968, that she changed her name from Liz, a shortened version of Elizabeth, to Betita, a diminutive of her first name with the Spanish-language –ita. She reclaimed her father’s last name and dropped Sutherland altogether.11 Inspired by the changing politics of SNCC and the growth of Black Power, new movements began to challenge racism against other people of color, including Latinx people. With her move to New Mexico, she co-founded the newspaper El Grito del Norte/The Cry of the North, which spoke up for Chicanx and Indigenous land rights and against racism.
In exploring the connections between the U.S. war against Mexico, the theft of land, and the racism used to justify it, Martinez’s antiwar commitment expanded. She was speaking out against the Vietnam War, but she felt that her activism had to go further. In 1970, she traveled to North Vietnam as part of an antiwar delegation, the first Chicanx antiwar activist to do so, later speaking and writing about the experience. She was eager to link the struggle of Vietnamese peasants with the plight of Chicanxs in the U.S. Southwest.
Organizing against a new round of U.S. wars in Latin America and confronting the legacy of U.S. colonialism led her to launch a political campaign against Ronald Reagan’s war machine. In another first, in 1982 she ran as the first Chicanx person on the ballot for governor in the state of California. Linking the fight against war with the crisis of poverty and racism in the United States, she pointed out that every person would pay $1,000 in taxes that year that would go to war spending. This was money that should be spent to address issues of oppression and inequality, to care for people instead of killing them. She ran on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket, attempting to expand political options in the electoral realm as well as to challenge the politics of war that both major parties espoused. In the 1990s, she founded the Institute for Multi-Racial Justice in San Francisco. As director of the institute, she was able both to write and to organize a younger generation, sharing her skills and knowledge while continuing to learn herself.
In the struggle to change society, Martinez took culture as seriously as politics. During her years in New Mexico, she compiled the bilingual 500 Años del Pueblo Chicano/500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures. This massive compendium of photos, essays, and illustrations was published in 1976 by the Southwest Organizing Project and later revised and expanded by Martinez in 1991. She continued to be a gifted editor throughout her life, working on books of movement scholarship including the influential Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement, by Carlos Munoz Jr. In 2007, she completed 500 Years of Chicana Women’s History/500 Años de la Mujer Chicana.
The “War on Terror” loomed large over the last twenty years of her life. She began the twenty-first century co-founding the bilingual newspaper War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, conceived in the days following September 11, with a group of Bay Area activists. It was available for free and in print to “bring an accessible antiwar message in English and Spanish to a broad audience.” The newspaper had a national reach and ran for over two and half years during the height of the antiwar movement, averaging 100,000 copies per issue, with nineteen issues total. Martinez was on the editorial committee, soliciting and editing articles and reaching her extensive network for distribution, art, design, and promotion. By 2010, with her health failing, she worked to bring in and orient young writers to the political project. Co-founders Max Elbaum and Ellen Kaiser recalled this as a fitting end to her political work, passing on her knowledge, experience, and ideas to a new generation.12
Martinez died on June 29, 2021, at the age of 95, and with her we lost a link to a principled anti-imperialist left. She was a tireless fighter against racism, war, and oppression through everything she did, until the end. With her activism, writing, and teaching, her life is an epic lesson to those who continue the struggle for a more just world. Olga Talamante remembers her unflagging organizing efforts. “She had the stamina of a long-distance runner,” Talamante wrote in a special issue of Social Justice dedicated to Martinez, “carrying on a frantic pace of meetings, speaking engagements, writing, and demonstrations.”13 An early inspiration to Angela Davis and a mentor to both Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Mike Davis, Martinez bridged a generational divide that few alive today, save maybe Noam Chomsky, can claim. Though hers was often a losing battle, in every instance Martinez stood in opposition to the powers that be, those who left piles of mangled bodies and wrecked dreams in their wake.
Prodding as always, in the midst of the antiwar movement, Martinez wrote a provocation to the War Resisters League, forcing a public discussion of the relationship between militarism and racism. The result of the public discussion was another book that she co-edited with fellow activists, We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America, a fitting crown to her editorial career. In her co-authored introduction, she lays out her goal “to make practical connections between the struggles against racism and militarism.” She saw this work as central “to help tomorrow’s revolutionaries begin building the future today.”14
In a world where racism is deployed to vilify those in Afghanistan who resist U.S. empire and those in the United States who fight back against massive inequality, we cannot fail to make the connections Martinez did. With the jingoism and patriotism of current and recent wars still raging, with Iraq and Afghanistan still smoldering, we need to hold up the voices of those speaking most clearly and vociferously for a different way. In this long struggle, Martinez was a consistent voice, ignored by the mainstream, but embraced by those who build the movements that force a reckoning with the racism, wars, and occupations that mark the bloody history of the United States. May her lifetime of work help continue to inspire and lead the movements until the peacemakers and antiracists have won the day.
- ↩ Tony Platt, “The Heart Just Insists: In the Struggle with Elizabeth “Betita” Sutherland Martinez,” Social Justice 39, no. 2–3: 29.
- ↩ Angela Davis, “Before I Knew Elizabeth Martinez,” Social Justice 39, no. 2–3: 96.
- ↩ Elizabeth Sutherland, “The Cat and Mouse Game,” Nation, September 14, 1964.
- ↩ Davis, “Before I Knew Elizabeth Martinez,” 99.
- ↩ Elizabeth (Betita) Sutherland Martinez, “Neither Black nor White in a Black-White World,” in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC, ed. Faith S. Holsaert et al. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010), 533.
- ↩ Martinez, “Neither Black nor White,” 533.
- ↩ Martinez, “Neither Black nor White,” 534-535.
- ↩ Martinez, “Neither Black nor White,” 535.
- ↩ Martinez, “Neither Black nor White,” 534.
- ↩ Elizabeth Martinez, De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century (1998; repr. Brooklyn: Verso, 2017), 153.
- ↩ Martinez, “Neither Black nor White,” 535–37.
- ↩ Elizabeth Martinez, “Who Will Ring the Bells for Humanity,” War Times/Tiempo de Guerras 3 (2002).
- ↩ Olga Talamante, “La Amistad Perdura/A Friendship Endures,” Social Justice 39, no. 2–3: 145–46.
- ↩ Elizabeth “Betita” Martínez, Matt Meyer, and Mandy Carter, We Have Not Been Moved: Resisting Racism and Militarism in 21st Century America (Oakland: PM, 2012), 2, 10.