Rhonda Williams empowers MSU students to ‘break the silences’

Scholar-activist Rhonda Y. Williams of Baltimore, Maryland, encouraged students to break their personal silences and impact others through social justice work during her Tuesday [March 28] visit to Mississippi State University. Held in celebration of Women’s History Month, Williams’ presentation was sponsored by the MSU College of Arts and Sciences’ African American Studies program, Holmes Cultural Diversity Center, Office of Public Affairs, and Department of Sociology’s Gender Studies program. (Photo by Megan Bean)

Contact: Sasha Steinberg

STARKVILLE, Miss.— Refuse to be silent.

That’s the simple yet powerful message that scholar-activist Rhonda Y. Williams shared with students during her Tuesday [March 28] visit to Mississippi State University as part of Women’s History Month.

“Throughout history and now, black women have too often been silenced, overlooked, obscured, or even excised from the historical and contemporary record, and yet black women have refused to be silent.

Wherever struggle is, there we are…thinking, writing, speaking, creating, organizing and marching in order to just be…engaging in the intellectual, political and cultural work,” said Williams, the first African American to earn tenure and achieve full professor status in the history department at Case Western Reserve University.

During her presentation sponsored by MSU’s African American Studies program, Williams inspired students to develop a strong understanding of the ways that power is organized through race and gender. Having the courage to speak up is key to empowering others, she said.

“Having the gumption to speak up and being able to see complexity, who is left out of the dynamic, is critical if we’re going to engage in social justice work,” Williams said. “There is not a place in social justice work where there is no work coming up. You’re always in a process of struggle.”

Williams commended anti-lynching journalist and women’s rights advocate Ida B. Wells for being among the many black women who have “broken their personal silences in order to expose wrong, social silences.”

“Ida Wells not only acted through writing about crimes of the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre, but she created the space for other black women to share their stories and speak up,” Williams said. “Her story not only pushes the timeline, but it gets us to think about the kind of historical narrative that we’ve been taught and shows us the many ways black women influenced and engaged in social justice struggles across time.”

A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Williams has authored articles on black power politics, the war on poverty, low-income black women’s grassroots organizing, and urban and housing policy. She also has penned two books, including “The Politics of Public Housing,” in which she explores the lives and activism of black women such as Shirley Wise.

“Shirley Wise was and still is a mobilizer and spokesperson for civil rights and tenant rights. She fought for safe neighborhoods and for people to have basic quality of living, and she pushed for respect for all human beings,” Williams said. “She knew there were racial and gender politics in play and that she was being oppressed because she was a poor, black woman living in public housing. Knowing that allowed her to figure out some spaces to try and challenge that. You can’t challenge what you don’t call attention to, speak out about and know.”

Williams, a University of Pennsylvania doctoral graduate, also spoke of influential black women who followed in Wells’ and Wise’s footsteps, including Queen Mother Moore, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Goldie Baker, Johnnie Tillmon, Ella Baker and Coretta Scott King.

“When asked what freedom meant to her, Nina Simone responded, ‘no fear.’ Nina Simone, like so many other black women, combined her activism and her music to speak out for people,” Williams said. “We have to remember that we all stand at the intersections of multiple oppressions, and black women’s struggle has shown us that as well.”

“None of us can shut our mouths because the lessons ain’t dead,” Williams emphasized. “The voices of black women in history and today’s social justice struggles cannot remain silent because our silence and your silence will simply not protect you or us.”

Asked about ways youth can engage in social justice, Williams said education is key to having an impact.

“You have to constantly educate yourself about history and the present, and then strategize about the campaigns or interventions that you are going to make that go hand and hand,” she advised. “When you have conversations with others and collectively think about issues, all of that helps lead us toward a society that cares about other human beings.”

Along with the MSU College of Arts and Sciences’ African American Studies program, Williams’ presentation was supported by the university’s Holmes Cultural Diversity Center, Office of Public Affairs, and the Department of Sociology’s Gender Studies program.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, MSU’s African American Studies program offers courses leading to a minor in African American Studies. For more, visit www.aas.msstate.edu.

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.