Ida B. Wells and 21st-Century White Supremacy
By Catherine Meeks and Nibs Stroupe
Why Ida B. Wells? Because she did the work no one else would do. She kept showing up where she wasn't wanted. She worked with people who would work with her. She worked with people she didn't agree with and with whom she fought constantly. She worked for the betterment of a country that saw her doubly, as black woman and as a second-class citizen. She lived through some of the darkest times in American history and did not live to see the biggest advancements that her daily work yielded in later decades. Yet she believed in herself, and in her ability to get
things done, not just for herself, but for her fellow citizens.
Born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida Wells lived the early years of her life in slavery, yet under the oversight of the Union army. On the land where she was born, there now stands not the house of her former owner but rather a museum in her honor and memory.
And remembered she should be! Though born into slavery, she came to consciousness in the time of the Emancipation Proclamation and the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. Thus, her primary definition was not "slave," not "property of white people"; her primary definition was daughter of God. She never allowed that oppression narrative of slavery to enter her heart and consciousness. She never accepted the idea that she and her family were slaves because they were supposed to be slaves. She understood from the earliest stages that she was held as a slave because of the oppressive nature of the masters, and this consciousness made a huge difference in her life and in her imagination.
To gain deeper insight into the dilemma that confronted Wells and continues to serve as the foundation for white
supremacy in the twenty-first century, we must examine the the modern system of race. The purpose of the system of race was domination. This system works so that people classified as "white," especially men, will internalize its approach and believe in their superiority. It also works so that all others will tend to internalize inferiority and believe that white males control almost all the power because they were ordained by God or by biology to do so.
Ida Wells lived in the tensions and demonic powers of this system.
Ida Wells lived in the tensions and demonic powers of this system, but she was soaked in a spark of divinity that allowed her to see herself as God's child. She refused to abide by the attempts to strip her dignity in the post-Reconstruction days that reestablished slavery under the name of "neo-slavery," or "Jim Crow."
Wells learned that the power of racism was deep and wide and she would later lift up a phrase that Ronald Reagan would use as one of his hallmark phrases: "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." Wells meant it in the sense that we know it today: racism is deeply embedded and intertwined in our American consciousness, and we must always be working to mitigate its loathsome power.
Though some marked the Obama presidency as the death knell of the power of racism, many in the South did not. We were astonished at this turn of events that led to his election, but as native Southerners, raised in the power of white supremacy, we knew that the hold of racism remained mighty in our hearts and in our structures and institutions. We wished that the election of Barack Obama as president could have changed that, but we also knew that it could not and did not.
And now we see the answer of white people to the Obama presidency: we are in the third year of the presidency of Donald Trump. He was elected by white people, with the majority of white people of both genders voting for him. Many of us were surprised that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, yet history reminds us that whenever there is some advance toward racial or gender justice, there is a backlash and a regathering of white male power.
…whenever there is some advance toward racial or gender justice, there is a backlash and a regathering of white male power.
The election of 2020 will tell us much about our future, but for now we must seek the wisdom and justice that we can. This is a crucial time in our history, and another time of great danger, as reactionary forces seek to turn back the small tides of progress that has been made. Our time bears many similarities to the years after Reconstruction, when hard-won rights for African Americans were stripped away by the resurgence of the power of white supremacy. Thus, it is fitting to turn to our elders and witnesses.
Ida Wells was born in slavery, matured during Reconstruction, and fought fiercely for the freedom that she found in the Reconstruction time. She did this while it was being stripped away in a tidal wave of racism and white supremacy. Her life and witness offer hope and possibility for us.
Though American history is rather pessimistic on this level, we choose to be inspired by Ida Wells whose life was dedicated to the idea of equity and justice for all. Her life and witness remind us of the fierceness and dedication needed to be a voice for justice, touching so many points of "intersectionality": categories such as race, gender, class that overlap one another and are in conversation—and often in tension—with one another. And we
are focusing on her because her witness has been greatly undervalued in American history. In these challenging times, we must be guided by her life and witness—though she did not win as many victories as one wishes she had, she was never defeated.
CATHERINE MEEKS, PhD, is the retired Clara Carter Acree Distinguished Professor of Socio-Cultural Studies at Wesleyan College and the Director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing. She has long been a strong advocate for social justice, community, and wellness. She is the author of several books, including Living Into God's Dream and Standing on Their Shoulders: A Celebration of the Wisdom of African-American Women.
NIBS STROUPE retired in 2017 as pastor of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church, a nationally recognized leader in multicultural and racial justice ministry. He has written numerous articles for magazines, including The Atlantic online. He has written frequently for Westminster/John Knox's Feasting on the Word series, and is a frequent contributor to Journal for Preachers. He is the author of four books.
This excerpt is taken from Passionate for Justice: Ida B. Wells as Prophet for Our Time by Catherine Meeks and Nibs Stroupe and used with permission from Church Publishing.