Passionate for Justice: Ida B. Wells as Prophet for Our Times

Catherine Meeks and Nibs Stroupe
Church Publishing Incorporated, 160 pages
Reviewed by Cynthia A. Jarvis

If you read “Passionate for Justice,” you will find yourself included in the growing number of people who, like the authors, are passionate about Ida B. Wells. Wells was born into slavery in Mississippi. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 was passed when she was 13, the last significant piece of civil rights legislation enacted by Congress until Congress outlawed the segregation of public accommodations in 1957. In 1883, when Wells was 21, the Supreme Court ruled the Civil Rights Act unconstitutional.

One year later (and 71 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery), Ida B. Wells refused to vacate her seat in the women’s car of a train leaving Memphis for a seat in the car reserved for black passengers. After biting the hand of the conductor when he tried to remove her, she continued to resist. It took three men to get her off the train. Her passion for justice found Wells improbably arguing her case before a judge who awarded her $500 in damages. Not improbably, the Supreme Court of Tennessee overruled the lower court. Still, it was the first of many victories that would mark her life. Wells would go on to became a journalist, a social activist and the author of “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” “A Red Record” and “Mob Rule in New Orleans.” After her offices were burned to the ground in Memphis and her life was threatened, she left the South to become an internationally known advocate for racial justice and women’s rights.

I confess that I knew nothing of Wells before reading this book. Now I want to go to the sources. I want to know Wells through her own words. That is the first reason to read Catherine Meeks’ and Nibs Stroupe’s book about Wells.

Yet the book is as much about Meeks and Stroupe as it is about Wells, and that is the second reason to read their book: It will make you rethink your own life in relation to the resistance and resilience of Ida B. Wells. Meeks is a retired professor of sociocultural studies at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and Stroupe is the recently retired minister of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church in Decatur, Georgia. Born less than 40 miles from one another in Arkansas, Meeks notes that they were “light years apart culturally in our little Arkansas oppressive worlds.” Meeks learned early on to “be quiet” around white people who held the key to her well-being. Stroupe learned “the racism that undergirds whiteness” not from mean and devious people, but from the “good white people” in his family, his neighborhood and his church. Their stories caused me to revisit my own.

Finally, Meeks and Stroupe wrote this book to continue the conversation about liberation that they have been having since they met one Sunday a few years ago at Open Door Community. The questions at the end of every chapter include us in that conversation. That is the third reason to read this book, a book best discussed one chapter at a time, with a small circle of racially diverse conversation partners who are “just trying to be human” and who long to “embrace the journey of racial healing.”

Cynthia A. Jarvis is co-editor of “Feasting on the Gospels” and is currently writing a book of personal theological essays on the Fra Angelico frescos in San Marco Cloisters. She resides in Bath, Maine, and Philadelphia, following her retirement as pastor of The Presbyterian Church in Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia.