Nancy McNair, 81, grew up in a Quaker household in Swarthmore, Pa., so activism came early for her, even in the conservative 1950s.
“My mother had converted to Quakerism and was very committed to peace issues her entire life,” recalls McNair. Both parents worked to integrate swimming pools in the affluent suburb of Philadelphia. In 1958, as part of a Quaker fair housing effort, her uncle tried to sell his house, two doors down, to an African American family. That resulted in midnight phone calls and threats to burn down his house.
As a college student, McNair continued her family’s tradition when she volunteered as part of a racially diverse Quaker project in Louisville, Ky. When the group of blacks and whites went for a social gathering at a member’s house in the suburbs, they were forced to leave when neighbors called and threatened to kill the host’s dog, then shot at them with a BB gun as they left.
Following marriage to a college professor, McNair and her husband, Ray, moved for his job to Tuskegee, Ala. As a poll worker in 1968 when George Wallace was running for president, McNair removed Wallace’s segregationist literature from inside the polling place, whereupon a white probate judge had her removed. Luckily, she could call the local sheriff, who happened to be the first black sheriff in the state of Alabama and he escorted her back in.
Adopting two bi-racial children, the McNairs encountered the effects of prejudice through their children’s eyes. “It was painful and challenging at times but eye opening, wonderful and heartwarming most times.”
1986 brought another cause into McNair’s life. She had been hired to be coordinator of Sex Health/HIV/AIDS Education at the UGA student health center. In that role, she trained peer educators and spoke in hundreds of classrooms. In 1987, she helped found AIDS Athens and co-chaired three exhibits of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. She ran a support group from 1989 to 1993.
“My role during the early era of the epidemic was the most compelling experience of my life,” she says. “I am honored to have been part of that struggle.”
Today, despite the loss of her husband and one child, and various physical ailments, she continues to be active in a variety of causes, including immigration reform.
Writing and Marching
Journalist and activist Ed Tant says that the Vietnam antiwar movement was his initial foray into activism. Starting with a Spring march in Atlanta in 1968 that began at the draft board on Eighth Street to Piedmont Park, Tant’s journey as an activist has progressed over five decades.
“Every war comes with dissenters and protestors – if nothing else we made people question the act of war.”
A writer in Athens since 1974, Tant has encouraged people to exercise curiosity and pay attention to social issues, especially those related to war, from Vietnam to Iraq. Although he is now retired, he says he has not retired from activism.
From the days of his first march when bystanders threw things, Tant has endured harassment and hardship but has remained steadfast in his convictions to stand up for his beliefs. In 2004, he and others were arrested and jailed in a demonstration at the Republican convention in New York City. The incident resulted in a successful class action lawsuit won by demonstrators and bystanders reporting false arrest. In an article in the local newspaper in 2015, Tant wrote that the $1,000 he received was “finite and fleeting, but the vindication is priceless and eternal.”
Tant’s activism has taken on many forms from protestor to volunteer. He has attended or volunteered at every Athens Human Rights Festival for forty years. The festival is held each spring to promote “equality, justice, peace, and goodwill.”
Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., Tant says a quote he keeps in mind as an activist is: “There is nothing more powerful to dramatize a social evil than the tramp, tramp of marching feet.” Those marching feet, he says, can be effective both at demonstrations and at polling places.
“In my newspaper columns I have documented protest marches with pen and camera for more than 40 years, but I also remind people to exercise their hard-won right to vote.”
Wielding a pen and camera has perhaps been Tant’s most persuasive and powerful form of activism. In hundreds of articles appearing in both local and national publications, he has used the written word to stir public awareness and effect social change. His column, Street Scribe, appears twice a month in Flagpole, and he has a wealth of writing and photographs at his website: www.edtant.com.
“As an activist I encourage people to be skeptical, not cynical,” says Tant. “My goal is to incite insight.”
Two Corrections in Part 1 of Activism Then and Now: Clarke Central, previously named Athens High School, was built in the early 1950s. The name was changed in 1971. Bryson Tanner, one of the first graduates of the new school in 1953, notified us of the error, and we thank him for it. In addition, Alvin Sheats, notified us that Ms. Florence Diggs worshipped at First AME Church on the corner of Hull & Dougherty St.