Healthcare Justice Movement Mourns Loss of Leader

Marilyn Clement, June 30, 1935 – August 3, 2009

by Donna Smith –

Marilyn Clement, national coordinator for Healthcare-NOW, died August 3, 2009. We mourn her loss. She was an organizer for the ages, a friend, a mentor, and as of today, an angel.

Behind she leaves legions of single-payer healthcare activists who may not even know her name or her background or her struggle but who carry with them her passion for a just world where every human life is valued and protected and honored no matter his or her station in life, gender, color of skin, or name recognition potential. In a world gone mad for celebrity and status, Marilyn was a woman of peace and compassion for all.

I first met Marilyn when SiCKO premiered in New York City. Then just weeks later when I introduced the film to audiences at the Atlanta Social Forum, it was Marilyn who took me across town to a hotel room where Laura Flanders had set up a radio studio to broadcast all the action at the event. Marilyn brought me to be on the radio show with her — and with Atlanta’s Dr. Henry Kahn. Diane Shamis of Progressive Democrats of America will recall that interview too.

Thunder and lightning raged outside as our interview aired. And Marilyn had a terrible blister on her leg from the heat and her brace working in concert to create an open sore that had to have been terribly painful. We sat on a bench out in the hallway as she positioned a band-aid to cushion her skin. Then we walked together, and she asked me about my own skills and what I wanted to do with my new found, though surely fleeting fame. I told her I wanted to write.

Within days, she emailed me and encouraged me to report on my travels — and the people I met along the way — and on my own vision for healthcare reform. She took those early essays and submitted them for me to the “Black Commentator,” and I wondered why she thought anyone would read them or care. She posted the pieces on the Healthcare-NOW website, and she stayed in touch with me — praising me, always praising me.

She stood by me when I testified before Congress, and encouraged the very first healthcare justice vigil at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

We would later laugh together about so many things associated with being activists and with being strapped for cash. The bus tour through 12 states and 17 Congressional districts that was both fraught with huge challenges but also blessed with dynamic energy was a triumph that still reverberates through this movement with activists who before that road show had never heard of single payer and who now breathe life into their own community efforts and the national drive.

Some of the events we attended brought in hundreds of people, some only a dozen. But Marilyn made every event seem a success and allowed no person to lord over another for any reason. With a firm and just passion for her work, she recognized every contribution for its potential.

Over the past several months, Marilyn has been fighting multiple myeloma. As her illness slowly at first and then more insistently later pulled her energies away from the work she so loved, Marilyn stood back and trusted those in whom she now left the details of the political struggle. No matter how deeply all of us may have wanted her to weigh in and take back the reins at various points in our discourse, she never did. She offered only love and support.

About 10 days ago, I traveled to New York to see her one last time. Though issues at home and in DC were pressing, I also knew the time was drawing closer when Marilyn would die and any words I had left to say to her would go forever unsaid — at least in this place.

She was weak. She was tired. But her spirit was evident. I shared with her some of the recent activities surrounding single-payer. When I told her about some of the single-payer victories, she pumped her fist once in the air. I shared with her a piece of taffy that came from a basket Michael Moore sent along — Marilyn’s son split the piece in half for us. We laughed a bit. She told her son that I was a wonderful writer. I choked. Before I could cry in front of her, she dozed off and did not know from me how her comment describing me was the most amazing gift anyone could ever give me — to say I am a good writer is to love me and honor me at a very deep place.

Yet, she knew exactly what would honor me. That’s what Marilyn’s life was all about.

I tried to ask her what she thought we should be doing in this movement going forward. She waved me off. She said, “We don’t need to talk about all of that now. You all know what to do.” In that moment I knew she was at peace with the hand-off. Each of us who have been touched by her have already been handed our marching orders in the most loving and honorable way.

As I stood to leave, I told her I loved her. She told me she loved me. We smiled at each other. And she drifted off to sleep. I knew the end of this life was not long off for her, and I knew she was just fine with that.

For the rest of the afternoon, Katie Robbins and I worked on rally plans in the Healthcare-NOW offices. And that was, of course, exactly what Marilyn knew would be progressing.

This morning, she died. And the rest of today, her army of activists turned their attention to the task at hand — honoring one another with fierceness of spirit in the fight for healthcare justice for all. May she rest in the same peace that she shared so broadly with us all on this earth.

Donna Smith is a community organizer for the California Nurses Association and National Co-Chair for the Progressive Democrats of America Healthcare Not Warfare campaign.


  1. Mark Hannay on August 4, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    A wonderful tribute and memory, Donna. Thanks for sharing this with all of us. We will all truly miss Marilyn here in NYC.

    Mark Hannay
    Metro New York Health Care for All Campaign

  2. Mitzi Cagle, RN on August 9, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    Donna, that was beautifully written. My thoughts are with you, I am sure this is a hard time for you, but what a great way to honor her. Thanks for sharing!