Vera Marcus

The Mother Movement

Recorded: August 24, 2012

How are the struggles of civil rights, GLBT and environmental movements related? Vera's civil rights activism prepared her to became a legendary fighter for Wild and Scenic Rivers in California.

Vera Marcus has been a trailblazer in every phase of her life since she was bussed to high school in Birmingham, Alabama during the most dangerous days of de-segregation. Graduating in three years, Ms. Marcus was the first African American woman to graduate from Princeton University in 1972. She has been involved with nearly every social change movement in the U.S. during her lifetime, and has been a practicing attorney for nearly 30 years. Despite being intimately involved with the movements including Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation, and more recently Gay Rights, Ms. Marcus holds the environmental movement closer than the rest. It is, in her words, “the mother movement” on which all the others depend.

Highly intelligent, determined and principled, Ms. Marcus was recruited as part of an executive development program by California Resources Secretary Huey D. Johnson in 1978 from the nascent Women’s Commission. She headed a task force within the Resource Agency to ensure that five undammed California rivers would receive the designation of Wild and Scenic Rivers under the federal program. Ms. Marcus oversaw the Environmental Impact Report that was necessary for success, and was a spokesperson for the program for the first Jerry Brown administration. In December of 1981, she flew to Washington, D.C., to hand deliver a document to Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus who signed it on the final day of President Carter’s administration. The sequence of events she set in motion that day saved the rivers in perpetuity. Ms. Marcus’ tenacity, hard work, character and outspoken passion for environmental and social causes is a singular inspiration to all who know her.

Vera Marcus: Well sometimes not knowing your enemy is best. I was not afraid of them and all my life I had been in sort of a battlefield and I always related to the other struggles in order to do my job. So when I walked into the Environmental Movement, I walked into the Environmental Movement from the Civil Rights Movement. Now in the Civil Rights Movement, we had unfortunately an enemy and that enemy was the quote “white man” unquote. And I’m sure in my head; I just took one enemy out and put the other one in. We would not be defeated in the Civil Rights Movement and that’s important to why I was able to do that work. So there was no way I was going to be defeated by those who opposed what we were trying to do. Just to touch back on the Civil Rights Movement so you understand my place in that. It was my sister who was actually among the first black students to attend a white high school in Birmingham, Alabama. It was so dangerous that for a period of time she was driven to school by the Alabama State Troopers. And it was so dangerous when I went there two years later in 1965, she went in 1963, that I wasn’t permitted to join the band because the band traveled and the law enforcement could not ensure that they could protect my life because blacks were being killed. The four girls that died in the bombing were just down the street from where I lived. So that affected my whole upbringing in the way I viewed the world because I went through high school totally isolated from the first year to the last. When I graduated, I was heading to Washington State University because they had given me a 3,000 dollar scholarship, more money than I had ever heard of in my life. And then one day I got a letter from Princeton offering me 33 hundred dollars. Well, which one would you take? I had no idea of what Princeton was, how it rated among schools. I did not know what Ivy League meant. And I certainly did not know that it was an all male school. But I went there, again fearless because of ignorance. As to the Women’s Movement, I’m still debating with myself which is more important. I first felt a little disenfranchised because I was a woman and I was also black and I felt some competitiveness between the movements and I would laugh and say “Well what am I supposed to do because I’m black and I’m a woman too?” And I think that the Women’s Movement owes a lot to the Civil Rights Movement because we kind of came ahead of them. So now I’m really confused because my most recent cause is the Gay Rights Movement. I have a son and he happens to be gay and so I’ve added that to my list. So which is more important to me? I don’t know. In some way, all of these movements to me are related. Fundamentally, the Environmental Movement is the mother movement because it concerns the very air that we breathe, the sun that shines. I remember heading the first project. We haven’t talked about this, for solar energy. We produced the handbook for people to retrofit their homes. Now there are commercial ventures everywhere.
There’s so many things that under your leadership that I had a part in doing and as an adult, I won’t say how old I am, but into my senior years. Of all the movements, I view the Environmental Movement as more important because whether you’re black, whether you’re woman, whatever your sexual orientation is, we’ve all got to figure out a way to make this earth last.

Vera Marcus: You know you look at my life and you go “Okay, what did she do?” You know I’m pretty proud of having been a part of the Wild Rivers Movement and I have to look at it now and say it was the most exciting, historic thing that I did and what’s wrong with that?