Jemar Tisby talks history as activism in guest lecture
Lee University recently welcomed Jemar Tisby to speak during Chapel as well as give an evening lecture. Tisby’s lecture titled “History as Activism: How Learning the Past Helps Us to Change the Present,” detailed a timeline of black life in America.
Tisby is the president of The Witness, a black Christian collective that engages issues of religion, race, justice, and culture from a biblical perspective, according to their website.
In addition to his presidency, Tisby along with his colleague Pastor Tyler Burns host “Pass The Mic” the official podcast of The Witness.
Tisby opened the Oct. 18 chapel service with a reading of Matthew 25:31-46, noting the significance of Lee’s Centennial anniversary by telling of his search for news stories from the year of Lee’s founding.
“You see, 1918 was also the year of a very infamous lynching,” Tisby said. “Now I have to apologize to you in advance, this is not a happy sermon in many ways. The praise and worship band had us all lifted up, but this is heavy and it may bring us down.”
Tisby recounted the graphic lynching of Mary Turner as recorded by investigator Walter F. White of the NAACP four months after its occurrence.
“Now that was 1918,” Tisby said. “Would you believe that between 1918 and 2018, 200 anti-lynching bills have been introduced in Congress? Not one of them has passed. To this day, we do not have an anti-lynching bill on the books in the United States.”
Tisby’s message called for Christians to stick up for the marginalized members of society, with an emphasis on those oppressed on the basis of their race.
Tisby’s evening lecture highlighted his study of history, as he is currently a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at the University of Mississippi.
“What I’m downright mad about is the apathy of so many Christians in America,” Tisby said. “I’m fired up about it because I know that people are suffering. People are marginalized and oppressed every day, and we don’t have the luxury of being selfish.”
Tisby opened and closed his lecture with a song by Christian Rapper Trip Lee, “Coulda Been Me” which highlights issues such as racial profiling and police brutality.
Tisby’s walk through black life in America began with the writings of Olaudah Equiano, a man who was taken from his home in Nigeria and enslaved, detailing the horrid conditions inside slave traders’ ships, according to Tisby.
“We like to say that America’s original sin was slavery,” Tisby said. “I think it might be more accurate to say that America’s original symptom was slavery. America’s original sin is greed.”
Tisby relayed an anecdote about James Meredith, the first black man to integrate into the University of Mississippi in 1962, prompting race riots that left two dead.
Expanding on this, Tisby gave the context for the creation of his recent opinion piece for The New York Times.
According to The Mississippian, veteran public relations officer and namesake of the University of Mississippi’s School of Journalism Ed Meek posted images of black women in Oxford Square at night stating, “a 3 percent decline in enrollment is nothing compared to what we will see if this continues…and real estate values will plummet as will tax revenue.”
“To symbolize the decline of the city and the university, he used two black women,” Tisby said. “One of those women pictured happened to be a student in one of the classes that I had TA’d for. She could not come to class for the next several sessions because she was so emotionally disturbed by the fact that [Meek] whose name is on a building, who everybody knows would [use] a picture of her as a poster child of what’s wrong with the city and the university.”
Tisby condemned Meek’s remarks as being “racist and sexist” resulting in a similar outrage among faculty and students at the university.
The response pushed Meek to volunteer to have his name removed from the School of Journalism, according to Tisby.
Tisby proposed a renaming after Ida B. Wells, a co-founder of the NAACP and an investigative journalist into the lynchings of the late 19th century.
“What more appropriate repair could be made for this damage done to these two young black women—these students—than to rename the school of journalism after a black journalist, a woman from Mississippi,” Tisby said.
The end of Tisby’s lecture focused on institutionalized racism in the form of redlining, a practice by which property owned by black Americans was deemed to have less worth than that of their white counterparts.
Tisby also focused on the expansion of the police force from small groups of law enforcement pre-Civil War to the distribution of city budgets towards developing a police presence once black people were freed.
Tisby concluded his lecture by giving the audience a warning about the pursuit of history.
“I want to give you a word of caution,” Tisby said. “History is about truth-telling, and when you tell the truth you will face opposition.”
The lecture began at 7 p.m. and stretched all the way up to 10 p.m. as Tisby stayed after his lecture and Q&A to discuss with audience members individually.
Having been Tisby’s first time at Lee, he expressed excitement at the possibility of returning if prompted by the university.
“Absolutely! Any time y’all invite me,” Tisby said. “I’ve had great hospitality here and the students are wonderful.”
Tisby’s upcoming book, “The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism” is set to be released on Jan. 22, 2019 and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.
Tisby can be followed on Twitter @jemartisby.