Remembering a Woman that
We Never Should Have Forgotten
A Feature Review of
Passionate for Justice:
Ida Wells As Prophet for Our Time
Catherine Meeks and Nibs Stroupe
Paperback: Church Publishing, 2019
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Reviewed by David Swanson
For the past few years I’ve helped lead pilgrimages through some of the significant sites of the Civil Rights Movement in the American South. Our groups gather in Chicago or Kansas City and make the long bus ride to Alabama. Throughout the weekend trip there are moments when the participants are surprised to learn something about this era in history; very rarely has anyone on these trips been exposed to a robust account of this painful period of time. This is especially true when we arrive in Montgomery to visit the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. For the rest of the trip the participants generally refer to the site as the lynching memorial because, functionally, that is what it is. Walking between the monuments, you are confronted with the names of counties and then a list of names- all of the known victims of lynching from that county. The sheer number of names quickly becomes overwhelming but so does this question: Why didn’t I know?
It’s not a new question. The majority of these lynchings took place in the decades following the demise of Reconstruction. Yet despite the more than 4,000 racial terror lynchings that occurred between 1880 and 1940, most white Americans remained silent about this assault on their fellow citizens. About their willful, deceptive silence, journalist Ida B. Wells wrote, “[W]hen they intentionally, maliciously and constantly belie the record and bolster up these falsehoods by the words of legislators, preachers, governors and bishops, then the Negro must give to the world his side of the awful story.” And Wells did everything within her power to tell that side of the story.
Wells was born in July of 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi just one year before the Emancipation Proclamation. The oldest of eight children, at the age of sixteen she raised her siblings after both of her parents died of yellow fever. First a schoolteacher, Wells went on to purchase The Free Speech and Headlight in Memphis in 1889 which began her long career in journalism. Three years later, in what would be one of the pivotal moments of her life, Well’s good friend Thomas Moss along with William Stewart and Calvin McDowell were lynched in Memphis. After writing a scathing editorial about the murders, a white mob burned her newspaper office and threatened to kill her if she ever returned to Memphis. Wells spent the rest of her life reporting and advocating from Chicago.
In Passionate for Justice, authors Catherine Meeks and Nibs Stroupe recognize that Wells’ “witness has been greatly undervalued in American history.” (9) As with lynching itself, Wells, who would go on to become the principle voice demanding that the country account for its violence toward African Americans, has often been overlooked and forgotten. Meeks and Stroupe set out to remind the readers about this remarkable woman and, as is suggested by that word “witness”, to situate her as a Christian whose courage was provoked by her faith.
Meeks and Stroupe make unique guides to the life of Ida B. Wells. She is an African American professor and he is a retired white pastor. They share the beliefs that Wells ought to be a model for racial justice today and that there are many implications of her life that deserve exploring, especially for those whose Christian faith motivates their justice work. In alternating chapters, the authors take Wells as a starting point for reflections on race and justice.
To take one example, the authors see Wells as being totally uncompromising in the pursuit of truth. She was willing to say what needed to be said about white racism in order to expose the violence being done to black people. In Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in all its Phases, Wells took on the false narrative that most black men were lynched because they had sexually assaulted white women. Tearing into this fraught lie, Wells bravely wrote, “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”
It was this sort of truth telling that regularly got Wells in trouble and it’s a part of her character that Meeks and Stroupe think American Christians can learn from. Our tepid and safe attempts at racial reconciliation are not worthy of Wells’ legacy. “All of these efforts refuse to address the narrative of white supremacy that stands at the pathway of all other forms of oppression. Until that acknowledgement is made in a clear and unequivocal manner, no sustainable racial healing will occur.” (87)
Passionate for Justice should not be the last word about the many ways Ida B. Wells is an example of faithful discipleship in the face of American racism. There’s still so much to explore! But Meeks and Stroupe have given us a starting point for our imaginations. They have asked us to remember a woman – and her faith – we never should have forgotten.
David Swanson is the pastor of New Community Covenant Church on the South Side of Chicago. He is the author of Rediscipling the White Church (InterVarsity Press; May, 2020) and writes regularly at dwswanson.com.
 Jacqueline Jones Royster, ed., Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1829-1900 (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997), 78.
 Royster, 52.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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