We must all channel the spirit of Ida B. Wells

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Friday, August 11, I was honored to receive the Ida B. Wells Award from the National Association of Black Journalists at our annual convention in New Orleans. In accepting, I felt it necessary to remind people of the fighting spirit of Ida B. Wells and offered a challenge to my colleagues on what we must do to protect our profession – and our story. Here are my prepared remarks, delivered, for the most part, intact.

I stand on the shoulders of giants, some from 100 years ago, some from 20 years ago, some from last year. But the most important thing is: I also stand on the shoulders of NABJ babies I’ve helped teach for 25 years who are becoming giants.

I stand here in honor of a woman who taught us that journalism can and should be, in some cases – a crusade.

Ida B. Wells Barnett was born the child of slaves in Mississippi. She became a teacher whose first righteous complaint was that white teachers made $50 more a month than she. Rosa Parks was not the first to refuse to give up her seat, not in 1955, not in our history. Wells sued the train company that kicked her out of her first-class seat that she bought. She won, but after the verdict was overturned on appeal, she wrote: “O God, is there no…justice in this land for us?” But her greatest and most heartbreaking work came after a black friend was lynched by a white mob whose initial anger was that his grocery store was competing successfully against a white store. Wells urged black people to leave Memphis. More than 6,000 did. Thus began an anti-lynching campaign that must continue today.

They are still lynching us.

They are STILL lynching us.

They stopped using ropes and trees.

They stopped celebrating – out loud.

They took off their hoods.

But they are still here.

Those times we thought were gone are just a tweet away.

Hate crimes are rising. The Fourth Estate is under siege.  People cannot tell the difference between those of us trained to help them find the truth and some guy sitting in his underwear in a basement in Wisconsin declaring that his new is real.

Stop using the term fake news. If it’s fake, it’s not news. Call it what it is: lies and garbage. Stop letting people like Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon determine our lexicon, and then we teach it to America.

The people are demanding more of us journalists. So we must step up and give it to them, not be angry that they are NOT so discerning.

Black journalists though have another job. We must be excellent, and we must make sure our story, the story of our people, is not lost. We must learn what Ida B. Wells, writer, editor, suffragist, feminist, taught us: That everything is local. Every national event, every global issue affects people down the street. We just need to make them see it.

Every column I’ve ever written has been for my grandmother, Lowney Hilliard Pitt, who lived her entire life in a small town in eastern North Carolina and who needed to understand every issue debated in Washington, every crime committed in New York and every politician lying in Detroit or Chicago or Philadelphia.

It all affected her.

We black journalists still have one more job. Yes, we always have more to do than everybody else.

We must train a new generation to continue to tell our story.  We must be the ones to continue to say the names of the fearless storytellers, not just Ida B. Wells, but of Frederick Douglass and Vernon Jarrett and George Curry and Gwen Ifill …

… and Gwen Ifill…

… and Gwen Ifill.

We must say the names Clarence Page and Leonard Pitts and Eugene Robinson and Helene Cooper and April Ryan.  We must say the names of the giants-in training, Nikole Hannah Jones and Wesley Lowery and Clinton Yates and Katrease Stafford. Wesley and Katrease are two of my babies, and Katrease, who nominated me for this award, bless her heart, sits next to me in a newsroom that has far too few black people in it.

We black journalists cannot let our figures become hidden, lost to a larger history that isn’t required to include the names of W.EB. Du Bois or Booker T. Washington and Madame C.J. Walker.  It’s on us.

We must make sure that 100 years from now, the name Ida B. Wells is spoken with reverence and respect and awareness.

We must make sure the name Gwen Ifill is spoken with pride and care. Forever.

Ida B. Wells died at age 68 in Chicago. She left a legacy deserving of teaching in all American schools. Her name should be known to all children regardless of their color or station. Her motto is mine:  “One had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”

Giving honor to God… I want to give thank you to my grandparents, Lowney and Bennie Pitt. He had a sixth-grade education. She had a love of life. I am their dividend.

Thank you, NABJ and Northwestern University, for speaking my name today. …

But I ain’t done yet.

 

ROCHELLE RILEY’s essays on this blog are personal. No reprints without permission. You can read her newspaper columns at www.freep.com/rochelleriley and follow her on Twitter @rochelleriley.