Whenever I think about the Civil Rights movement, my mind goes immediately to the example of Rosa Parks and her heroic refusal to give up her seat on the bus.
But it was only in the last couple of weeks that I learned about the women who paved the way for Rosa Parks, even as she paved the way for the women after her.
Do you know the story of Ida Wells?
She was born into slavery in 1862, and when she was 16, she lost both her parents to a yellow fever epidemic. She raised her siblings and got a job as a teacher.
In 1883 she bought a first-class railroad ticket from Memphis to Woodstock, Tenn. Yet, shortly after the train left the station, the conductor came up to her and told her to move to the crowded and dirty smoking car that also served as the “Negro car.”
When she refused – since she had bought a first-class ticket! – the conductor got two other engineers who dragged her to the other car.
She got off at the next stop, but she was not finished. She sued the railroad company and actually won an initial settlement, although the railroad appealed the decision, which was eventually reversed.
If the story ended there, it would be enough to see this precursor to Rosa Parks, more than 70 years before Parks refused to move on the bus.
But the story of Ida Wells was far from finished.
She would become a journalist. Starting in 1892, she began documenting and reporting on the lynchings of black men in Memphis. As she would say, “It is with no pleasure that I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed ... Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so.”
Because of her work, she drew attention to the injustices and killings perpetuated on African Americans in the Jim Crow South. She would be defamed, slandered, threatened, eventually forced to move to Chicago. But she would not be silenced.
Her voice would become a major voice for change in this country. She would later join W.E.B. Dubois and others to found the NAACP. She would die in 1931.
Did she see the end to segregated buses and trains? No.
Would she see the end to lynchings? No.
But her work and her voice and her life would empower others so that segregation would end, so that the indiscriminate killing of African-Americans would cease.
The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) After proceeding to describe numerous Scriptural examples of faith, he shows that their faith was not based on fulfilling the promises they lived for. Their faith was based on the God that would lead them forward, the God that would fulfill those promises in a time not their own: “Yet all those, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11:39-40)
So in this month that we celebrate as African-American History Month, we remember the story of Ida Wells. We remember her voice, her life, her witness to the continued struggle for justice for her people. And inspired by her example, we live out our faith and work for justice and peace to reign. And even if we do not see the reign of God’s justice, we will not falter. We will add our voice and our witness, trusting that the God who inspires our lives and the lives of those who have gone before will fulfill these hopes and dreams and promises in God’s own time.