By Austin Block
Martha Wheelock sat on a porch swing and chatted with a bent over, middle-aged African-American woman on a small farm in Tougaloo County, Mississippi. The lady initially scoffed at Wheelock’s suggestion that she register to vote.
“Oh, they don’t want an old woman like me voting. I don’t have anything to say,” Wheelock recalled her saying.
Wheelock, now an English, Ethics, and Gender Studies teacher, then started questioning her about current issues. The woman immediately launched into her opinions. Soon after, Wheelock helped the woman register to vote.
“She gave me lemonade and I brought my registration and showed her how to do it,” Wheelock said. “She knew how to write her name but it was really shaky, it wasn’t very fluid, but I explained it to her and she did what she could and then I witnessed it so people would know that it was an authentic name … I just hope she voted. I think she felt empowered after that.”
Denied by a case of mononucleosis the opportunity to join the fledgling Peace Corps, Wheelock signed up to help Southern African-American voters register during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. She spent two summers knocking on doors and working one-on-one with adults who had never before voted. The middle-aged woman’s door was the first she approached.
“I saw how my particular small dormitory [at Earlham College] got along because all sorts of races were in it,” Wheelock said. “Then I had a personal experience of falling in love and wanting to marry an African American, and out of the personal experience and out of the education I was getting, I was impassioned.”
Wheelock’s participation in the Civil Rights Movement was only one part of a lifelong commitment to activism and ethics. In addition to teaching for over 40 years, she also joined the Women’s Rights and Ecology Movements, participated in anti-war protests, worked on the recent “No on Prop 8” campaign (in support of gay marriage), made several documentaries and a feature film, published several works, and started her own “alternative school.”
She is currently working on a documentary, “The Sixth Star: California Women Winning the Vote,” which will be part of the statewide Centennial Celebration of the 100 year anniversary of women’s suffrage in California. The film will be screened at the Autry Museum on Sept. 18 of next year. It will also be screened in towns throughout the state. Wheelock held a launch event for the film near school on Oct. 10. Wheelock has also made two other films about women’s suffrage, including “One Fine Day,” the video played at the Women’s History Month assembly each year.
“I fell in love with women’s suffrage history,” Wheelock said. “People really have to voice what they need and what they want, so I did a film for the 75th anniversary of women’s suffrage and now I’m working on a film to celebrate California women winning the right to vote [for] next year, the 100th anniversary.”
In the documentary, Wheelock will detail the grassroots campaign of the early Californian suffragists. She said these passionate people distributed over 3 million pieces of literature, knocked on doors, held rallies and smaller meetings, and used modern political campaign practices like using electric signs, billboards, handbills and buttons to support their cause. She said the suffragists eked out a narrow victory on Oct. 10, 1911, despite major opposition.
“We were western, and it was a big state, and there were not these big parades like in the East Coast so the women and the men had to go person to person, to learn how to argue, to learn how to express their passion, and it is such a moving story because it really shows you how people working together … can actually move mountains,” she said. “At one time in this state, in 1910, there were 700 newspapers. So what did the women do? They sent out press releases to 700 newspapers a week. These were ordinary women who didn’t have any degrees, they just believed in what they were doing and that’s a really great lesson that when we’re fired up, we can find a way to coordinate with somebody else or to share our vision.”
Before moving to California in the 1980’s, Wheelock taught in Harlem, on Long Island, at Dalton College and at School Within a School, an alternative school embedded in Greatneck South Senior High School on Long Island that she started with a few other teachers around 1970.
“She does everything,” Rachel Katz ’11, who had Wheelock for Honors English III, said. “I don’t know how but literally every single day of class we find out that she has had a previous career in some other profession … I would make eye contact with kids in my class like ‘how? How has she done something else?’ It’s ridiculous.”
Wheelock said that at some point, she would still like to fulfill her dream of volunteering internationally.
“I was supposed to go to [East Africa] and work with people there, so this is something that’s just driven me crazy,” Wheelock said. “As an older person, I want to go and work with young people in the Peace Corps, or in international care, or work with women and children or something like that.”
In the meantime, students and teachers appreciate her presence in their lives.
“I think Ms. Wheelock brings genuine compassion to the table and real life experience,” Katz added. “Beyond just teaching the material I think she teaches a lot about how to make this world alive.”
“She’s got her hands and heart in so many vital aspects of the school,” English Department Chair Larry Weber said. “She brings an energy that is enviable, that the sun would envy, and a passionate interest in the well-being of young people and [the] development of their hearts and their minds and a breadth of knowledge about a variety of subjects … and I think a real love of people.”