“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
~Ida B. Wells
Shedding light on injustice was a way of life for activist Ida B. Wells. As an investigative journalist, she wrote of the horror of lynchings, indignities, and violence she witnessed against Black people. As cofounder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she spoke out against the atrocities of systemic racism. As a suffragist, she marched and protested for a woman’s right to vote, refusing to walk behind white women leading the cause.
“She was on a rampage to tell the whole world of the atrocities being committed,” says Michelle Duster, who is Ida B. Wells’s great-granddaughter and author of the newly released Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells. “She clearly knew she was facing danger and continued writing and speaking out against injustice. By her actions, she felt the fight was worth potentially dying for.”
Wells was born in 1862 in Mississippi and died in Chicago in 1931. She blazed trails along the way. In the book, Caitlin Dickerson of The New York Times states, “Wells is considered by historians to have been the most famous Black woman in the United States during her lifetime.”
Duster found inspiration in Wells’s personal diaries, family stories, writings, and noted achievements. She writes that Wells was often overlooked and underestimated but made her mark by committing herself to the needs of those who did not have power.
Today, generations later, there are women—activists—who have taken up her cause and carry on her legacy, trying to shed light on the truth.
Carrying the Torch
People had big expectations for Duster and her siblings to be like Wells, but her parents encouraged them to find their own paths. Duster came full circle, connecting to activism in college for different reasons than Wells.
“I became more aware of how powerful media images are in shaping attitudes, which can affect policies, so I wanted to get involved in helping to shape those images to more closely reflect the reality of Black people’s lives and experiences.”
And Duster was on her own way, on her own social justice journey.
Reclaiming Our Own Narrative
For Black History Month, Duster was interviewed at Charis Books, a feminist bookstore, by Dr. Catherine Meeks, the retired Clara Carter Acree Distinguished Professor of Socio-Cultural Studies at Wesleyan College and the Executive Director of the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing. A strong advocate for social justice, community, and wellness, Meeks is the author of several books, including Passionate for Justice: Ida B. Wells as Prophet for Our Times and Living into God’s Dream: Dismantling Racism in America.
The two discussed Wells’ larger-than-life influence as well as being a woman of substance—and about how they and other women are doing their part today. Making once-silent stories known and available is crucial.
Reclaiming the narrative is bringing the full stories of women of color “out of the margins, and out of the asterisks and footnotes to fill in the gaps,” says Duster. “This country has a long history of omitting our stories and experiences of oppression and marginalization. Pretty much everything about what Black people contributed to this country needs to be brought out of the margins. Every aspect—the sciences, math, engineering, medicine, education, performance art. Overall, our story is either completely omitted or undertold.”
She gave an example about how the suffrage movement was initially focused on five white women at the forefront. But there were thousands of women involved, including Black women like Ida–and many of those stories have come out in the last few years.
This personal awareness of social justice issues and bringing out stories to resolve race-based inequality are especially important now, in this time of unrest. Many from all walks of life have come forward to speak out against injustice every day.
“We had an entire summer of unrest in 2020. People like Lucy McBath, Stacey Abrams, and Sybrina Fulton who are featured in the book, all came from modest backgrounds, yet are making a great impact on our country. It’s time for people to be informed about the truth of institutional and systemic racism in order to understand how we got to the social unrest of today.”
One goal in Duster’s book was to make Ida’s inspiring story relevant and contemporary. Nobody lives in a bubble in this “vacuum of history,” she says. But if the idea of coming together in large organizations, movements or protests is intimidating, women can be agents of change on their own terms, in a more intimate, individual level.
Duster, who also edited the anthology, Impact: Personal Portraits of Activism that is focused on “quiet activism.” She suggests writing letters to their representatives, start and sign petitions, write letters to editors of newspapers, write articles, show up to community meetings, write letters to corporate leaders, organize boycotts, vigils and sit-ins.
Meeks added to the list, noting that anyone can make a difference wherever they are coming from. Anyone can be a firm resister. Anyone can be conscious, stand up tall, and gather up courage.
We have to have clear resolve inside ourselves, says Meeks. “Live with your antennae up. Any time anyone marginalizes you or a group—with encroachments, bad jokes, denigrating slurs—say something. If you hear it, don’t let it get past you. We don’t have to be ugly about it. We can respect the dignity of the other person and preserve our own integrity.”
In the article, “Social Justice Fatigue – Recover Your Faith in Humanity,” Capacity Building and Policy Builders, LLC, a consulting and professional development firm that helps to operationalize and align practices and values, states that fatigue can happen. If their expectations are unrealistic or their support wavers, social change agents can experience burnout. They can be so overwhelmed they may question whether they still care about a specific issue.
With the right support and resources, they can reconnect to a social justice cause with renewed energy and focus.
The Center for Racial Healing where Meeks is executive director, speaks to dismantling racism while addressing the toll that can take on activists—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Its mission is to provide tools and experiences that allow faith communities – and the larger community of individuals – to engage in dismantling racism through education, prayer, dialogue, pilgrimage, consulting, curriculum design, webinars, and spiritual formation and other resources.
Sometimes the replenishment comes from community and sometimes it’s about reflection. What she hopes activists see is that we need to feel connection for the greater good, while caring for ourselves. She cites a Zulu phrase—“Ubuntu”—which means, “I am, because you are.” The basic concept is “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.”
Believing in this kind of approach can strengthen your mindset and resolve and approach others with dignity, says Meeks. “There are things you just don’t do or say to another human being. Don’t stay in those separate groups, judging. Instead of hurting people and have fear walking along on our streets, we have to work harder. It will take all of us to have conversations and imagine us doing better than we are. What have we lost that needs to be restored?”
The Inspiring Activist
Duster believes that what we’ve lost can be restored. Through Duster’s dedicated work, her platform, and her civic involvement, Ida B. Wells is getting the recognition she deserves. There are books about her, buildings, streets, parks, schools, and museums named after her, and awards that commemorate her selfless, purpose-driven work.
Duster wrote: “My great-grandmother’s life was not easy. She endured death threats. She lost friends to lynchings. She lost parents through disease. She lost her teaching job when she spoke up about inequality. She lost her printing press when she spoke up against injustice. But through it all, she stayed focused on truth-telling. She believed that her voice was important, and her story needed to be heard.
“I think she did the most that is humanly possible.”
In 2020, nearly a century after her death, Wells was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for journalism. It reads: “For her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
Many activists featured in Ida B. the Queen—and other women—carry that torch for Wells, using their voices as individuals and as a collective to reclaim the narrative. Duster says, “I would argue that directly or indirectly, her work paved the way for all of them.”
For more information visit:
Michelle Duster’s website www.mldwrites.com