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Mama, Kamala, and Me: A Prayer of Gratitude for Black Women’s Leadership

Senator Kamala Harris, Dr. Karen Jackson-Weaver, and Lillie Ford Jackson. Photo Design by: Adia Weaver Today, I want to invite you to join me in Day Three of my 30 day Prayer for the Nation. October 7th was the 2020 Vice Presidential debate and I could not help reconsider the historical significance of United States Senator […]

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Senator Kamala Harris, Dr. Karen Jackson-Weaver, and Lillie Ford Jackson. Photo Design by: Adia Weaver

Today, I want to invite you to join me in Day Three of my 30 day Prayer for the Nation.

October 7th was the 2020 Vice Presidential debate and I could not help reconsider the historical significance of United States Senator Kamala Harris and her connection to a larger legacy of black women’s leadership in American history.

Senator Harris’s selection as the first Vice Presidential candidate of Asian-American and African-American descent on a major Presidential candidate’s ticket is historical and monumental.  However, Charlotta Bass and so many other black women leaders during this era paved the way for Senator Harris. In 1952, Charlotta Bass was the first African-American woman to run for national office as a Vice Presidential candidate on the Progressive Party ticket. She was a newspaper publisher and a co-founder of the Black women’s group “Sojourners for Truth and Justice.” Indeed, Senator Harris’s nomination represents a historic milestone for our country and individuals such as Bass made it possible for us to celebrate this moment. During their speeches at the 2020 Democratic National Convention both Senator Kamala Harris and Former First Lady Michelle Obama gave voice to the countless black women who paved the way for them. Senator Harris also paid tribute to her mother and the incredible foundation she provided for her to be a global leader.

Given this historic season we are entering in as a country, I am especially mindful of my mother and her similar commitment and dedication to my leadershipdevelopment. As I consider the current state of global affairs, I am most grateful for my mother’s commitment to equality for all of humanity. Her upbringing in Crewe, Virginia and the life lessons she instilled in me are what I have been able to draw upon and leverage throughout my professional career.As I work with students, faculty, and staff in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe within a global university network, I am reminded of the inspirational way that she lived, modelling equal treatment and a universal love for all people, regardless of race, creed, or color.

I have been privileged to teach and learn at some of the finest universities in the world, including Princeton, Harvard, Oxford, and my current institution, New York University. However, there is a sage wisdom and way of seeing the world that my mother and grandparents exposed me to at a very young age. Even though they never had the opportunity to attend college, they taught the importance of using data and evaluating facts to make key decisions while acknowledging that some data or relevant information may be missing or not readily available. Living in segregated Virginia, they were very well aware of what it meant to NOT have access to resources or opportunities. They shared firsthand accounts of what it was like to be African-American in society and experience the trauma associated with signs marked “Colored” and “Whites Only.”

In hindsight, I really believe they overcompensated with my siblings, my cousins, and me. They always taught us we were made in God’s image- which meant that we were just as good as anyone else. No sign would ever dictate our self-worth or determine the contributions we would be able to make to society. I am not sure if they knew it, but they made me really believe that ANYTHING I put my mind to was possible. Even though they lived with the brutal realities of racism, discrimination, segregation, unequal treatment, and oppressive conditions, they strongly believed in and were convinced of a better, more equitable future for me and future generations.

They epitomized hard work and sacrifice. They also instilled an unwavering work ethic and commitment to excellence within each of us. My grandfather, Bernard Ford worked long hours on the railroad while my grandmother, Betty Ford, raised my aunts and uncles and later worked as a home health aide.

My mother, the late Lillie Theresa Ford Jackson, was the oldest of eleven children and the daughter of the late Bernard and Martha “Betty” Jennings Ford. She worked right alongside them and provided for her younger sisters and brothers. My uncle, her baby brother, and the youngest of the eleven Ford children, Eric, would always joke that he thought my mother was also his mother because of how she would take care him and do special things, like buy his first suit.

Even though she is not physically with me, the lessons my mother and my grandparents taught me as a child were powerful and left a lasting impression.In tribute to my mother and the leadership legacy of countless other black women whose names we may never know, I am honored to share “Lillie’s Leadership Lessons” with you.  

Lillie’s Leadership Lesson 1: Vote, no matter the cost!

Growing up as a child, my mother would tell me about her experiences of having to pay a poll tax in order to vote. Yes, a poll tax. It was illegal and unconstitutional, but my mother and so many others paid a poll tax so they could vote- in every election. Period. My mother voted in Nottoway County, Virginia during the 1960’s. She and so many other African-Americans were subjected to poll taxes, literacy tests and other extralegal means such as harassment and the grandfather clause in order to vote.

I asked her if she was angry because it was unfair. She acknowledged that it was unfair, but she would also tell me that there were people who were beaten, killed and mutilated just to have the opportunity to vote. This made me have a clearer understanding as to why my mother would dress in her Sunday finest to go vote at our school. I was always so excited to see her during my school day, since the voting polls were at our elementary school. She was alive and saw what happened to the late Representative John Lewis on television when he and other Freedom Fighters crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge and were brutalized on national television. She saw Fannie Lou Hamer speak to the Credentials Committee on August 22nd at the 1964 Democratic National Convention about her attempt to register to vote. Hamer’s live broadcast was interrupted by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was broadcast later that evening and Fannie Lou Hamer gave voice to the mistreatment, oppression, and disenfranchisement of black voters within the Democratic Party. Hamer and her fellow delegates from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party were not seated as delegates in 1964. However, in 1968, Fannie Lou Hamer became the first African American to be an official delegate at a national party convention and the first woman from the state of Mississippi. Earlier this week, October 6th was Mrs. Hamer’s 103rd birthday. The scores of Freedom Fighters and trailblazers she inspired and impacted are countless. Her historical legacy is central to my decades of research on leaders from the civil rights movement.

My mother instilled an ethic of service in me– not only to lead, but to develop others and their capacity to lead. Throughout my career, I have had the good fortune, to work in government under three gubernatorial administrations (McGreevy, Codey and Corzine) as the inaugural Executive Director of the New Jersey Amistad Commission. I am grateful for former New Jersey Secretary of State Rev. Dr. Regena Thomas and Former Commissioner of Education Dr. William Liberera for their vision to support me in ensuring that all New Jersey Schools would teach African-American history. I transitioned to higher education and have been able to work with students, faculty, and staff at Princeton University’s former Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (now known as the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs), Harvard Kennedy School, and the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University.

My mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer on December 26, 2000. Two weeks later while she was in the hospital, I asked her if she could imagine all of these things coming true. “Can you really imagine: justice, equal treatment, freedom, respect, and dignity, as well as equal access to fair housing, job opportunities, education, and health care for all people in America?” Before I could even finish, she said, “Yes!”  And I looked at her and when I looked at her, it was as if I could see the future in her eyes and all of the possibilities she and my ancestors had dreamed of. She made me believe that “We Shall Overcome” in my lifetime and that I would be part of the solution to bring about change.

She saw exactly what was needed and like my grandparents, Mama could look beyond the way the world was and instead see very clearly what it could be. The “Beloved Community” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Representative John Lewis, and others struggled and died for was something my mother gave me a glimpse of, and I have never forgotten that peak into a liberatory future.

We lost my mom to cancer nearly thirty days after her diagnosis, but that vision of America’s promise was one of the most precious gifts she left me.

Lillie’s Leadership Lesson 2: Prioritize learning black history and the legacy of disenfranchisement of African-Americans; and make a commitment to take action in order to dismantle racism and discrimination.

My mother made it a point to teach me about black history at a very young age, and I am sure that is why I decided to study history as an undergraduate and pursue my PhD in American History. I learned about Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of Black History” and Founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). Black History Month was initially Negro History Week and then morphed into African-American Heritage Month.  

I learned all of this at five years old when my mother took me to the public library to get my very own library card.  It was one of the most exciting days of my life because I had an “official card” and I even had a small wallet to keep it safe in. (I confess I repeated this same ritual with my kids and could feel my mother looking down on me from Heaven with such pride to keep this library tradition in our family going strong.)

My mother insisted that my brother, Leon Jr., and my sister, Alicia, and I visit the library every week. I remember reading biographies and the copies of Encyclopedia Britannica about numerous black people in American history. We had no internet during those days, so I would research and do written reports, even in the summer. I loved it! My mother even convinced her sister and my aunt, Vanessa, and her husband, Chris, to have their sons, Christopher and Shannon, come spend the summer with us so they could also be exposed to our summer school intensive sessions. I am grateful to my former teachers at Camelot Elementary School in Chesapeake, Virginia who gave me their left-over workbooks and worksheets to use. We used those materials and went to the library almost every day during the summer. My family and I still laugh and share fond memories of those special times whenever we get together during the holidays.

My mother and my father worked full time jobs and my mom even had part time work, so growing up, I did not realize we were the working poor. I thought we lived in a pretty nice house growing up and we always had food to eat, as my father would often say: “No one was going hungry.” Everybody worked in our neighborhood, but we never went on vacation anywhere, we did not go out to eat and whatever we received on Christmas was a result of a holiday savings account and lay-a-way my mother put in place. (For those of you who do not know what lay-a-way is, this is how you buy something and the store holds it for you – no credit cards, cash only.)

The truth is: my parents sacrificed a lot, especially my mother. My father was in the military for nearly 30 years and because he was in the US Navy, he was often away for several months at a time on the ship. When I was born, my father was at sea. My first time seeing him was when I was about seven months old. My mother ran our household and worked hard to provide for me, my brother, and my sister.

Because of these experiences, Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s focus on military families and her acknowledgement of the commitment and sacrifice these families make for all Americans particularly resonated with me. My mother was a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) and would work at nights so she could be at home when we came home from school. She would always ask us what we learned, how our days went and to this day, I know she made the best grilled cheese sandwiches ever! (My son, John III, loves to eat grilled cheese for lunch, and I am convinced he feels the presence of my mom every time he sits down to eat one.)

My mother would always find a way to link what we learned in school with something she read in Jet Magazine, which included a section on moments in black history. The late John H. Johnson and his wife, Eunice were the founders of Johnson Publications and their magazines gave me a glimpse of a whole world outside of Chesapeake, Virginia. There were black people who were scientists, inventors, mathematicians, musicians, doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople- both in real life and throughout American history. I learned about so many of them, but it was not until I attended Princeton University and studied American History that I fully understand the breadth and depth of black life in America. I called my mother every day in college and told her and my grandmother about my lectures with some of the most brilliant intellectuals in the world, including: Dr. Cornel West, Dr. Nell Painter, and the late Nobel Laureate, Professor Toni Morrison. We were also fortunate to have extremely talented administrators such as Dr. Ruth Simmons, Heddye Brinson Ducree, Rev. William Gipson, Rev. Dr. Melinda Contreras-Byrd, Rev. Dr. Willette Burgie-Bryant and the late Vilma Codner. When I was on campus, I always felt like my mother, my grandmother, and all of my ancestors were with me whenever I entered a room. I was physically there, but they were also with me in spirit.

My mother did see me earn my Bachelor’s Degree at Princeton University and my Master’s Degree at Harvard University, but we lost her to cancer before she was able to see me obtain my PhD. I dedicated my dissertation to her; it was on black women’s leadership in America and the significance of Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Septima Clark to the Black Freedom Struggle. I have been working on turning my research into a book since my mom passed away. When I finish, it will be a special tribute to her and what she taught me about the legacy of triumph and excellence of black people in America.

Lillie’s Leadership Lesson 3: Love unconditionally and demand equal treatment for everyone.

My mother graduated from Luther H. Foster High School in 1960. It was a segregated high school in Virginia, and she would tell us stories of how they would walk to school and the white kids on the bus would throw things at them through the bus windows. She also talked to us about hand me down books and old, second-hand items that filled their learning spaces.

My mother applied to college and was accepted, but was unable to attend since she had to stay home and help raise her 10 brothers and sisters. She attended Piedmont Nursing School and dedicated herself to a career in the healthcare field. She won several major “Nurse of the Year” and “Employee of the Year” awards because she was an exemplary nurse- and everyone knew it! She loved her patients and took care of them like they were family. All of the patients loved her and when she passed away in 2001, I had a whole new understanding of how my mother “really cared” for her patients. ALL of them- regardless of their race, ethnicity or background, loved Nurse Lillie Ford Jackson.

That lesson of equity- of treating people with dignity and mutual respect- was a given where I was raised. There was a genuine sense that the people who cleaned the hospital were just as important as the doctors and nurses. We were taught to say “good morning” or “hello” to everyone and acknowledge the personhood of each individual.

I am sure that my mother’s experience growing up in segregated Virginia shaped her worldview and influenced how she raised my siblings and I to treat other people. I recall her once telling us about the privilege of education and the consequences of lack of access.

She lived in Nottoway County, which was in close proximity to Prince Edward County, Virginia. The School Board in Prince Edward did not want to integrate their schools despite the 1955 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. So instead, from 1959-1964, they closed their public schools for five years, and black children were without any public education. Many black churches in the local area worked to create makeshift opportunities for students, but no black students were permitted to attend Prince Edward Academy. Instead of opening the public schools and integrating, Prince Edward opened a private school system and only allowed white children to attend. My mother saw all of this firsthand and made a commitment to live in a way that she would treat everyone she encountered as a member of the human family. As a Southerner, my mother especially embraced the notion of “Southern hospitality” and went out of her way to take care of people and make them feel welcomed. At her funeral, my brother, Leon Jr. said one of the most powerful statements that always stuck with me. “Mama loved unconditionally; she had an unconditional love for all us.”

Indeed, her love for us was extraordinary– and everyone felt the power of it. We still do. Even though my mother is physically gone, I can still feel the power of her love beyond the grave.

And as a person of faith, she lived in such a way that she loved people and it was pure, authentic, and transformative. She saw them as human beings and supported people in ways that were life-giving. And she expected nothing in return.

That was what I learned: give generously to others, treat everyone the same—but also demand equity. When we bleed, everyone’s blood is red. When we cry, all of our tears are clear. My mother, my grandparents, and so many other Freedom Fighters like the late Representative John Lewis experienced the harsh realities of racism and discrimination throughout their lives and yet in the face of it, they promoted and celebrated our common humanity. My mother’s fortitude, and the power of her love, coupled with her conviction to bring out the best in others, inspire me each day.

In recognition of my mother’s legacy, I plan to practice a year of gratitude. Each week I will send a note to someone who has made an impact upon my life. My hope is that I can fully express my appreciation for their support as I engage in my legacy work. I have been blessed with countless family, friends, teachers, and advisors in my life and this is my small way of acknowledging how grateful I am for them being part of my journey.

Sometimes I really miss my mom because I wish she could be here to experience some of the amazing things I have been able to see and experience. And then I think back to what she always told me as a little girl, “Karen, I am always with you.” And then, I see her smile and I feel her love- and that is all I need.

Thank you, Mama, for teaching me these life lessons and for leaving a legacy of unconditional love in order to bring about equal treatment for the humanity of the world.

My prayer today is that this tribute to my mother it will be a bountiful blessing and beacon of hope for all.

******************************************************************

Dr. Karen Jackson-Weaver is a minister, historian, and religious scholar with a focus on religion, ethics and political affairs. Dr. Jackson-Weaver recently transitioned from the UK, where she was a Visiting Scholar and Dean-in-Residence at Oxford University. She is a member of the Board of Trustees at Princeton Theological Seminary where she serves as Secretary of the Board and Chair of the Student Life Committee. She is an Associate Minister at Shiloh Baptist Church in Trenton, New Jersey and the former National Series Editor for the Teaching Religious Studies series published by Oxford University Press & the American Academy of Religion.

Connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter at @KJWeaverPhD.

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