Speaking Truth to Power in a Time of TragedyAug 25, 2014. Written by Sharon Jenkins
As a junior in college, I changed my major from business to journalism because of my love of writing. That love of writing became a professional passion because of the transcendent words of a powerful black woman who many scholars credit with creating the field of investigative journalism.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was described as a petite woman who towered over her peers in light of her courage, her reporting and her comfort in speaking truth to power.
She was fearless!
She often put her life on the line to document the systemic lynching of black men that plagued our nation in the late 1800s. In a preface penned in 1895 by Frederick Douglass, he praised Wells-Barnett’s meticulous Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States with these words, “You give us what you know and testify from actual knowledge. You have dealt with the facts with cool, painstaking fidelity, and left those naked and uncontradicted facts to speak for themselves. Brave woman you have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured.”
In the intense media focus that rages on in the aftermath of the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Americans are voicing their outrage at the appalling behavior of the Ferguson, Missouri police department. To date, the department’s leadership has failed to provide complete and credible details about the victim’s behavior as well as that of 28-year-old Officer Darren Wilson who was on the scene in the seconds that preceded Brown’s death by Wilson’s hand. Michael Brown’s death has inspired Americans outside of traditional politics to do what Ida would have done. They’re speaking out in a thoughtful manner that challenges law enforcement officials, and others, to take a look in the mirror and reflect on the stereotypes many of them embrace. It’s those stereotypes and irrational fears that often obscure the thinking of law enforcement officers in ways that result in the senseless loss of life.
In the spirit of Wells-Barnett, a diverse cross section of new and diverse voices have chosen this moment to speak out. In the midst of chaos and tragedy, new leaders are taking center stage. Increasingly, it’s their words that enrich and elevate public discourse.
Those speaking out range from noted celebrities who speak out despite potential financial risk if their views are viewed as too strident to little known concerned citizens who step to the mic as if they’re compelled to do so.
“We also have to talk about the narrative and making sure that we’re starting at the beginning. You will find that people doing the oppressing always want to start the narrative at a convenient part, always want to start the story in the middle. This started with a kid getting shot and killed and left in the street for four hours. I’ve never seen a white body left in the street for four hours in the sweltering heat. You know, the cop doesn’t call, um, doesn’t call in the shooting. The body isn’t put in an ambulance. It’s shuttled away in some shady, unmarked SUV… That’s where we need journalism.” – Jesse Williams, Actor, “Grey’s Anatomy” and Board Member, The Advancement Project
“We’re being asked to suspend our judgment on the incident between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown, right? But the response to that incident, the escalation, the militarization of the police…Michael Brown’s body laying in the street, Senator Chappelle-Nadal not being allowed to present her information publically, in a public space… this is the broader narrative that we want to speak to.” – Mustafa Abdul-Hamid, 26-year-old St. Louis resident
“We’ve given our police these military-style weapons, and you know, it’s a mess. But this is not new… this was happening with Bull Connor in the ’60s, this was happening with lynchings well before the ‘60s… It’s like every 28 hours some cop or vigilante kills an unarmed black man. It just shows you that we still have a long way to go….” – Grammy winning artist, John Legend
In the absence of complete details and as this incident continues to be investigated by local, state and federal authorities, I think it says something about the courage and character of those who choose to speak out, at considerable risk to themselves, and yet they do so anyhow.
Ida would be proud.