A memorial service will be held Sunday in Pensacola for activist Susan Watson, who died Friday, December 2, after a brief illness. She was 62 years old.
At the time of her death, Watson was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. But, her life and activism were rooted here in Northwest Florida.
Watson grew up in Pensacola, where her father, who was in the Navy, settled the family when she was 10 years old.
Watson began her career as a nurse, working locally and in Illinois, but, she decided to leave the profession and, with her own young family, moved back to Pensacola in the mid-1980s. In time, she crossed paths with WUWF Executive Director Pat Crawford.
“I got to know Susan very well as a parent at N.B. Cook,” Crawford said. “We had kids the same age and I was just amazed at what a volunteer she was and the things she accomplished as a parent at the school.”
Crawford found the perfect vehicle for Watson’s efforts. He tapped her to launch WUWF’s educational outreach and to represent the station with a public radio project known as PROVE, which stood for Public Radio Outreach Volunteer Engagement. It was an incredible success, and they invited Watson to come to the National Public Radio conference that year to present to other stations.
“They were so impressed, they asked her to stay behind,” said Crawford. “She stayed another week in Washington and she testified before Congress with the hearings for appropriations for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. So, she made a great impression nationally on behalf of public radio.”
After that Crawford hired Watson to work full-time at the radio station. She continued to do outreach and started to become involved with her activist activities, which he says never interfered with her job.
“Those were causes that were important to her personally and not necessarily things the station should take a position on. But, she did an excellent job of doing that, made us all proud.”
“Everyone joked about that Susan and I were the two activists at WUWF,” said Enid Sisskin, a friend and colleague of Watson’s.
Sisskin had much in common with Watson. They had both put their careers on hold to be stay-at-home moms. They were both members of Temple Beth-El. They discovered new skills working at WUWF and became high profile activists in the community. Sisskin, now a full-time faculty member in the University of West Florida public health program, championed the environment.
“Her causes were the disadvantaged, the under-represented, people who were not being given their full rights or children or students at school,” Sisskin said of Watson.
According to Sisskin, Watson was instrumental in getting N.B. Cook Elementary formed and was awarded for her efforts to get school supplies for students after Hurricanes Erin and Opal in 1995.
Watson made local headlines when she filed a public records lawsuit against then Escambia School Board member Vanette Webb. Watson’s perseverance led to Webb’s conviction and temporary removal from office.
As Sisskin recalled, Watson felt the students, who were under-represented and public school children who needed all the help they could get, were not being well treated by the school board and this one member of the school board and she wanted to find out what was going on in the background.
“That’s Susan! She saw what she thought was wrong and she had to right it,” she said. “That’s been the story of her adult life, certainly since I’ve known her.”
Watson would also achieve notoriety when she and her children, became plaintiffs in an ACLU lawsuit challenging Governor Jeb Bush’s school voucher program, which was thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court.
Watson joined the ACLU of Florida, serving on its board and executive committee and leading efforts to establish a Panhandle ACLU Chapter in 2000. She was appointed regional director and worked as a staff of one for a time before bringing Benjamin Stevenson on board as staff attorney in 2008.
“I will tell you I learned so much about the fight for civil liberties and civil justice and how to show compassion even in heated battles,” Stevenson said.
During the years they worked together, Watson and Stevenson tackled a number of civil liberties cases locally, beginning with the school prayer lawsuit against the Santa Rosa County School District. He says she loved taking on those she perceived as “bullies.”
"From the teachers who were ostracizing students in class who had different faiths, to the police who were engaged in racial profiling, or the jail who were not taking care of the inmates as they should,” said Stevenson, noting that Watson was also relentless in fighting for LGBT rights.
“I had the honor of being the person who hired Susan Watson,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. He was impressed by Watson’s work and helped her get the job as statewide director of the ACLU of Alabama in 2013.
In just three short years, she built a strong record of taking on the “establishment” in Alabama.
Simon highlighted some of Watson’s accomplishments.
“The Chief Judge of the Supreme Court Roy Moore and his attack on same-sex marriage; the attack on the Governor who tried to shut down Planned Parenthood; the attack on the legislature that was pushing back on trying to shut down abortion rights.”
“Enough is enough!” said Watson, speaking at a May 2015 Rally for Women’s Lives in Montgomery.
“It is time to stop,” Watson continued. “It’s time to stop religion to discriminate by allowing healthcare workers pick and choose who they want to care for. It’s time to stop offering bills that would ban all abortions at six weeks. It’s time to stop treating us like sex offenders by requiring clinics that provide pap smears, birth control, and abortions from being 2,000 feet from a school.”
In remembering his friend and colleague, Simon applauded Watson for taking on the big issues, and winning, “but she did it with charm and she did it with joyfulness. I mean she had some fun fighting the good fight,” he Simon.
“The community has lost an amazing advocate,” said Sisskin. “She was just remarkable.”
“She made an impression on this organization that will last forever and she will be sorely missed,” added Crawford, as he fondly recalled Watson tapping into her training as a nurse and being in the operating room with him when he had back surgery.
A memorial service will be held Sunday, December 11, at 4:30 p.m. at St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Pensacola.