African American Church Women, Social Activism, and the Criminal Justice System

Article excerpt

PROLOGUE

Intrepid and charismatic, confident that her work was righteous and important for the race, Nannie Helen Burroughs was an impressive Christian woman, Baptist leader, and educator. At her National Training School that stood high up on a hill in Washington, DC, she had some rooms especially equipped for little girls and as I sat in one of the small chairs (so that my feet could touch the floor). I was mesmerized and excited. My father, Rev. Dr Jesse Jai McNeil, met with Nannie Burroughs relatively often, flying in from Detroit to discuss the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., the Training School, and the Sunday School Publishing Board in Nashville, Tennessee. On this special trip, the children of the family would finally meet the famous Nannie Helen Burroughs. Father had already prepared his children and so 1 remember that my older brother (who was probably almost ready for first grade) and I listened to Ms. Burroughs with great anticipation. When she spoke, she engagingly commanded attention with straightforward talk and phrases or principles virtually impossible to forget.

Experiences with her as a child left me remembering several things, in no particular order. She once had an opportunity to be Frederick Douglass's secretary. She was the force behind the founding of "Women's Day" in the National Baptist Convention and affiliated churches, and she always insisted that all church women--poor or wealthy, grade-school educated or college graduates--have an opportunity to be leaders on Women's Day. My mother. Pearl Walker McNeil, who was an active church woman in Baptist circles, the Lucy Thurman YWCA in Detroit, and in United Church Women, told me that Nannie Burroughs selected white dresses for Women's Day because even someone who worked in domestic service had a white dress. Nannie Helen Burtoughs tolerated no excuses and did not believe black people should make any. "God helps those who help themselves" and anyone around Nannie Helen Burtoughs had to show initiative as well as intelligence, discipline, hard work, and a willingness to practice until she or he got it right. She was "old school"; there was one standard, nothing less than your best. She believed in our race--Negroes with a capital "N"--our strength, our stamina, our ability to help ourselves, our intellect, our capacity to speak for ourselves, our capacity to fight for our freedom, and our faith. She was inspiring, even to a child.

When I learned that Bettye Collier-Thomas had entitled her book using the words of Nannie Helen Burroughs, "Jesus, Jobs, and Justice," I felt I knew in a personal way something of what both were saying. Bettye Collier-Thomas is an extraordinarily hard-working scholar who long ago committed herself to demonstrating that the majority of African American women did not live an either/or existence--either religious faith and church service or social activism, politics, and membership in secular organizations. Among her lofty goals at the beginning of her career, she planned to gather the evidence to show African American women have lived at the intersection of faith, family, friendships, charity, service, pragmatism, political action, abounding hope, and the freedom struggle.

As for Nannie Helen Burroughs, she had left a strong impression on me, and my parents had spoken so much of her Christian work and witness that I was not at all surprised to learn that in 1955 she had declared, "The Negro must have Jesus, Jobs, and Justice." Thus on some matters Nannie Helen Burroughs and my parents were of one mind. Being a Christian meant you chose Jesus and that minimally meant love and service, using your gifts for good; purposefully giving each person an opportunity to live the life for which Jesus came, "the abundant life"; being fearless and firm in advocacy of the right, equality in God's sight; that God the Father was a God of Justice, and it was up to us to do justice and demand justice be done by others. …