To Work and to Pray in Remembrance by Elise M. Edwards


Elise EdwardsOne hundred years ago, Jesse Washington was lynched downtown in Waco, Texas. Next week, on March 20th, some of my colleagues and I are organizing a memorial service to remember this horrific event and pray for a better future for our city.

We invited submissions of original prayers, poems, spoken-word pieces, music, drama, and other pieces of liturgy for this ecumenical memorial event.  We received a number of thoughtful, heartfelt submissions, but we also a question:

“Why in the world do we need a memorial for one person who was lynched?!?! In the reality of things, Jesse Washington was one of thousands of Blacks that were lynched in America during the time period.”

I thought the answer was so obvious that I initially brushed off the question. But as our group proceeded with the plans, I thought about the question and wondered whether our university community would understand why we are doing this. And honestly, in moments of exhaustion when I put off responding to emails, I wondered, too. Why am I doing this?

To remember. We memorialize one person who was lynched to remind us that every single one of the thousands who were lynched was a human being who was killed unjustly.

In the speech “Lynch Law in America,” from 1900, Ida B. Wells-Barnett describes the injustice: “Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal.”

Wells-Barnett was an African-American journalist and activist for civil rights and women’s suffrage. Her writings and activism advanced anti-lynching campaigns adopted by Black women’s clubs and the NAACP. Unsurprisingly, her work was controversial, even among women’s groups. Wells-Barnett argued that lynching began after the emancipation of slaves to repress “race riots.” When a constitutional amendment permitted black men to vote, lynching was used to violently prevent their participation in state and national elections. When fraud, intimidation, and local policy succeeded in suppressing the black vote, the brutality continued in the name of avenging or preventing rape and assault of white women.[1] For this argument, lawmakers, ministers, and women’s groups accused Wells-Barnett of defending rapists and subverting “justice” for their alleged victims.

She did not defend rapists. (Neither do I.) She condemned a system that used allegations of rape of white women to legitimate hanging, burning alive, shooting, drowning, dismembering, dragging, and displaying black men’s bodies. Some allegations may have been true. Many were false. Despite the veracity of the allegations, the vigilantes tortured and killed men, women, and children in brutal, public ways, and we must not mistake that for any form of justice. Lynching apologists explicitly valued white lives over others. Lynching was, and remains a crime against humanity.

In our own age of campaigns against the impartiality of law and law enforcement, we should remember the lynching victims and the tensions within earlier waves of feminism and the temperance movement over anti-lynching campaigns. We do not have to condone criminal behavior to call for humane law enforcement or prison reform. We can affirm the humanity of accused and convicted criminals in the pursuit of justice. So we remember Jesse Washington and the other lynching victims to engage more consciously in the activism of our time. We remember so that we don’t lose sight of the complexities of our work. We work in remembrance of the many victims of injustice.

We also gather to pray. For some people, prayer is about making requests to the divine. But in a more expansive sense, prayer is communication with the divine. In prayer, we set time aside to connect to something greater than ourselves. It’s our hope that gathering as a community to pray for the future of our city prompts us to see beyond individual concerns. In a liberation ethics framework, as explained by Miguel De La Torre[2], prayer is not limited to individual, private conversations with God in hopes of gaining wisdom and guidance. De La Torre presents prayer as a communal activity that brings together different members of the spiritual body. It involves the critical application of the biblical text to the situation at hand. This involves critical analysis of the social context that gave rise to the text or its common interpretation. So we pray to give us time to come together, to read scripture, to seek God and hear God through other members of our community.

So why are we gathering? Why do we memorialize one person when there are so many others who have been harmed, not just in my local community but all of our communities?

To remember past wrongs.

To commemorate.

To honor.

To inspire.

To call attention to persisting injustices.

To make us mindful in our work.

To provoke us to pray.

[1] This argument about the reasons for lynching is found in several of Wells-Barnett’s essays, but is quite developed in The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States (1895).

[2] See Miguel A. De La Torre’s Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins (2nd Edition, 2014).

Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

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Categories: Academy, Activism, Black Feminism, Christianity, civil rights, Community, Death, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Healing, Human Rights, Justice, Liturgy, Power relations, Racism, Rape, Reform, Ritual, Social Justice, Violence, women of color, Women's Rights

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17 replies

  1. This is so well articulated. Thank you.

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  2. Thank you so much for this thought provoking article. The timing of your article was just right as our fellowship here in South Africa were praying for Trayvon Martin the young man from Florida, who was murdered on the 26th of February. May we continue to highlight all forms, shapes and sizes of ingrained social injustice. May we continue to conscientise our communities of the effects of unquestioned conduct of hegemonic masculinities on our society.

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  3. Beautifully, put, Elise. And sorry I missed your call. One tiny thing: the memorial service is 3/19 (on Saturday). At some point, I wrongly wrote 3/20 on an email…

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  4. So many men were lynched for so many imaginary crimes, like merely looking at a white woman and smiling. It’s awful. Black lives–and all lives–really do matter. Blessings to your group.

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    • Thank you, Barbara. It’s a system that used white women was an excuse for lynching while simultaneously devaluing those women as actual people. These women became a symbol of what was being threatened, like property.

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  5. In the late 1880’s lynching was done to whites even more than blacks. In 1884, 160 whites were lynched and 51 blacks. But in the 1890’s those statistics reversed: 69 whites were lynched and 161 blacks. In 1916, when Jesse Washington was lynched, a total of 4 whites faced that fate and 60 blacks. All of that horror slowed down dramatically, however, by the 1920s. From the mid 1930’s onward very few lynchings took place. And after 1968, none at all.

    Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, ending segregation. In our own age, as regards impartiality of law and law enforcement, as well as prison reform, we are carrying forward a long history of much needed evolution in our understanding of justice and compassion.

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    • Thank you for your comment, Meg. I appreciate your insight and passion for justice. Let me disagree slightly, though. The Civil Rights Act in 1964 was momentous and important, and it ended many of the LEGAL forms of segregation. Some of the changes that were widely implemented, like school desegregation, continued to be challenged through local initiatives and court cases, though. My point is–and I think you would agree with me–is that as we continue to make progress, we should celebrate victories and remember them. We also need to pay attention to the new forms that injustice takes. Intimidation, violence, and murder didn’t end in 1968 even if our records show that lynching did.

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  6. “For some people, prayer is about making requests to the divine. But in a more expansive sense, prayer is communication with the divine.” Thanks, Elise!

    Prayer can also be communication of the Divine speaking to the person. Oftentimes events and the thoughts of friends speak to us, too, in ways that guide us miraculously. It is sometimes called synchronicity or serendipity. In fact, In my understanding, everything in creation can be a message from the One Who Is, if we see it that way.

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    • I agree! This is why I think individual prayer–although important–is insufficient for a full spiritual life. Our spiritual lives should include listening for the Divine and conversations with others to hear the Divine through them, too. Thank you, Sarah.

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  7. Thank you Dr. Edwards for your work to honor the lives of black people who have gone before us in history. I have not forgotten that each one was a valuable human and deserved to live, love and celebrate life. Unfortunately the work of reclaiming the humanity of black women and men still goes on and I am encouraged by the movement to continue the efforts to celebrate black life in my community. If there is anything that those of us who are European settlers can do to help out
    let me know. I speak out whenever I can to effectively educate other white people about the reality of what America is truly about- all of us
    are created equal and deserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
    Black women’s voices in this new wave of the civil rights movement are so so welcome. Please continue to speak out. Thanks for your words
    and actions. Prayers for your radiant health and prosperity. Prayers for divine justice and peace in the entire community. Prayers for racism and sexism OFF THE PLANET.

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  8. I read this post while thinking about plans for Good Friday. For a long time, we’ve been trying to separate the symbol of the cross from a theology of substitutionary atonement, a one-time crucifixion of a divine scapegoat. The story of Jesse Washington is a story of one of the many ways we have persecuted, tortured and crucified the innocent. And continue to do so. Thank you for your thought-provoking article.

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