Catherine Meeks is the retired Clara Carter Acree Distinguished Professor of Socio-Cultural Studies at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. This article is adapted from “Passionate for Justice: Ida B. Wells as Prophet for Our Time,” co-written with Nibs Stroupe. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of BCNN1.
My earliest act of resistance came when I was a teenager, when I was taken to the local doctor. He had a waiting room for black patients in a dimly lit hallway that was separate from the well-lit, comfortable room where his white customers waited. I would refuse to sit in the space assigned to us. There was something in my soul that made me choose standing to sitting. It was a quiet protest, but I knew what I was doing.
I may have been inspired by my mother and several other teachers in her small school in Wheatley, Arkansas, who were fired after the school was integrated because the white people preferred white teachers. My mother and that courageous group of middle-aged African American colleagues, having finally found their voices, sued the district. To their surprise, they won the lawsuit.
Long before either my mother’s or my resistance, there was Ida B. Wells, the anti-lynching activist and fearless investigative journalist who is the subject of my latest book, written with Nibs Stroupe. In 1883, when Wells was still a public school teacher herself, she was thrown out of a Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad ladies car because she was not white, though she had the proper ticket for that car. She had the courage to sue the railroad. She won the lawsuit initially but lost on appeal.
The greatest gift that studying Wells has brought to my life is freedom from fear. The plague of the 21st century is fear. Of course, there are many of us who live each day as best we can as resisters to it, but the fear hill is steep, and many are slipping down it instead of scaling it.
From 2016 to 2018, I led Calling Their Names: Remembering Georgia’s Lynched, an initiative of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. We placed markers and created spaces for remembering the victims of lynchings in the state, while exploring the intersections of slavery, lynching, the prison industrial complex, the death penalty and 21st-century police extrajudicial killings — modern-day lynchings.
The initiative helps to address the issue of the moral injury that lynching brought to the nation and knocks at a door to healing that will not be opened until deep and true healing work is embraced.
Though our work was not nearly as dangerous as Wells’, we owe her a debt. She was a pioneer in several arenas, but her work against lynching angered the white population the most because she refused to allow the white narrative, which blamed lynching on the behavior of black people, especially the men, to stand as the truth.
She laid the responsibility of the indefensible act of lynching at the feet of the white perpetrators where it belonged. She observed that “in fact, for all kinds of offenses and, for no offenses — from murders to misdemeanors, men and women are put to death without judge or jury; so that, although the political excuse was no longer necessary, the wholesale murder of human beings went on just the same.”
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Source: Religion News Service