Volume 76, Number 7 | July 5 - 11, 2006

Obituary

Norma Becker, 76, fought for peace and civil rights

By Judith Mahoney Pasternak

Norma Becker, teacher, civil rights activist and prominent figure of the peace movement during the Vietnam War, died of lung cancer in her New York City home on June 17. She was 76.

She was a founder of the Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee, which drew tens of thousands to protest the Vietnam War, and of the Mobilization for Survival coalition. She served as chairperson of the pacifist War Resisters League from 1977 to 1983.
She lived on Charles St. for many years and 14th St. and Seventh Ave. in her final years.

“One of the truly great has passed,” said longtime War Resisters League staffer David McReynolds. “As much as any, and more than most, she provided leadership in hard times and for the long and horrific years of [the Vietnam] conflict.”

Becker was a New York City schoolteacher in 1963, when, as she said later, she was “recruited into the civil rights movement by Sheriff ‘Bull’ Connor of Birmingham [Ala.].” Appalled by media accounts of Connor’s use of dogs to subdue civil rights demonstrators, Becker went South to teach in the summer Freedom Schools.

Photo by Ed Hedemann

Over the next couple of years, Becker — and the burgeoning movement against the Vietnam War — found that she was a gifted organizer. In 1965, she helped start the Peace Parade Committee, which organized massive antiwar protests in New York City. Wendy Schwartz, a younger War Resisters League activist who came to the antiwar movement during those years, recalled, “It was Norma’s energy, intelligence and charm that helped make those demonstrations so large and so peaceful. She worked as well with the disparate peace movement factions as she did with the police.”

In 1977, after the Vietnam War had ended, Becker helped create the Mobilization for Survival, which linked the emerging movement against nuclear power to opponents of nuclear weapons and the wider antiwar movement.

A few months before the 2004 Republican National Convention, she participated in a protest planning strategy session at Yippie headquarters at 9 Bleecker St. that was filmed for a segment for CNN. Although everyone wanted to get on camera, the others made sure to defer to her as a veteran peace activist, wanting to hear her views.

But whatever other organizations she worked with, Becker also remained involved with the War Resisters League. Only a week before she died, at the annual W.R.L. dinner, the organization paid tribute to Becker’s influence on the struggle for peace.

She leaves her daughter and son-in-law Diane and Stephen Tosh, daughter-in-law Anita Becker and grandchildren, Sarah, Nicholas and Katrina Tosh and Alicia Becker.

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