Jean Wiley — Activist, Journalist, Educator and Mother, Grandmother & Great Grandmother
"I'm most notably a mother to you; but I'm also a lot else: sister, aunt, niece, cousin, friend, lover, colleague. Still the most defining thing about me is this: I'm a SNCC woman come to maturity and womanhood in SNCC, in the fire of the southern freedom struggle bathed in the warm waters of collective and mutual trust and respect — a committed and unrepentant progressive and activist."
With a wine glass perched next to her, cigarette a constant and pen poised to document the movement, Jean Wiley lived on her own terms in a "liberated state of mind." Born June 11, 1942 in Baltimore, Maryland a town forged in the steel of Bethlehem, riffing with the sound tracks from jazz joints that lit up the streets and where the bounty of blue crabs seemed endless, she grew up in a deeply segregated city knowing the Racemen and women of the day. For her, and so many others, "No Negroes" signs were walls surrounding public spaces from movie theaters to libraries. She navigated the curves and right turns of oppression and transformed the racists screams of "You can't" into the hallejuha's and Black Power of "We will. We can."
Her parents Elizabeth Thelma Holly Boyer Wiley and Joseph Alphonsus Wiley were born in Baltimore where Black working class people ascended out of the Great Depression and made a way out of the seemingly "impossible" of life. Her mother worked in a school cafeteria and her father was a house painter. They worked diligently and did not allow racism to deter them, so that Jean would be among the growing numbers of Black first-generation college students. According to Morgan State Professor Harold B. Chinn, Jean was the best debater with whom he ever worked for she was poised, smart and formulated excellent arguments.
In 1963, she was arrested in Baltimore for sitting in. Students from Howard University announced that they would be descending en masse in protest of those arrested. Mayor Theodore McKeldin thought, "Oh, we're not having this. Clear all the jails out. Just get them out. Forget procedure, just get them out of there." Without hesitation, they were released with the mayor agreeing to desegregate the theaters.
Her radicalism evolved as an undergraduate at Morgan State and graduate student at Michigan State on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. It also evolved thru sitting in and being jailed in Baltimore into her teaching days as an English teacher at HBCU Tuskegee Institute where the bookstore staff tried to shut down her request to order Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man.
She remained undeterred when her women students boycotted her class, after she decided to wear her hair natural. They felt it was unprofessional of her not to adhere to the standards set by the very white folk oppressing them. Jean went on to become a committed and unrepentant progressive activist with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. She went on to serve as the media relations coordinator for SNCC and as a Pan Africanist, spent time in Tanzania challenging and elevating the discourse surrounding the uncertain future of Black Power and Pan Africanism.
As noted in an interview conducted by Civil Rights Veteran Bruce Hartford for the SNCC Legacy Project, "During her work for SNCC, Wiley dispensed news across its southern projects. She covered voter registration tests in Sunflower County, demonstrations in Jackson, and boycotts in Americus, GA, and sometimes found herself under arrest along the way.
Ruby Sales, her former student, kept her eyes on Wiley, who came to Fort Deposit in Lowndes County, Alabama to report on a SNCC demonstration in August 1965. She looked up to her and trusted that she would know what to do when a white mob wielding guns and baseball bats surrounded them. One man in the mob approached Wiley and threatened her life. She backed away, facing the mob, feeling if they shot her, "she didn't want her parents or her family to think that she had been shot running." In the summer of 1965, she headed SNCC's national communications during Julian Bond's campaign for the Georgia State Legislature.
Along with Geri Augusto, Charlie Cobb, Belvie Rooks, Courtland Cox and Jimmy Garrett, in 1969, she conceptualized and taught at the Center for Black Education in Washington, DC, a partnership with Drum and Spear Bookstore and Press. Their approach to Black education broke from just confining learning to academic institutions and connected the campus to the community. The work centered on, as Cobb explained it, "How you use your education for the Black community."
Ella Baker who in 1960 organized the founding conference for SNCC, Fannie Lou Hamer one of the most powerful voices of the voting rights movement, her deeply cherished friend and SNCC strategist Ralph Featherstone and Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere continued to forge her vision of liberation while the music of The Freedom Singers, Miriam Makeba, Bill Withers and the Mighty Sparrow fueled her spirit and supported her in staying the course of struggle. Playing her guitar also served as a balm for her soul. The ongoing formation of her life was in part a result of being a veracious reader whose library included the works of iconic African American writer James Baldwin, Mozambican freedom fighter Amilcar Cabral, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, Chicago poet Elmira Stuckey and South African author Doris Lessing.
In 1971, she moved to California where her fierce activism and pen lead her deeper into her work as a journalist. She was one of four women, three of whom were Black, who covered the Angela Davis Trial. Jean wrote and provided extensive written and on-air commentary about the prison abolitionist movement of that era including the Soledad Brothers and Ruchelle McGee who remains the longest incarcerated person in the world.
Hearing the call of motherhood in 1975, she gave birth to her son Cabral Stuckey Wiley. In the early 80s, she and Cabral moved to Grenada where Cabral lamented, "Only my mother would move to a country with no television at all." Their hopes of finding a country where people lived in the daily practice of Black leadership and liberation were crushed when the move shifted into turbulence in 1983 as the US intervened and orchestrated the killing of Prime Minster Maurice Bishop.
Her passion for social justice also resulted in Cabral accompanying their dear family friends' anti-apartheid activist and author Belvie Rooks and actor and anti-apartheid activist Danny Glover on a transformative trip to South Africa in 2001. That trip and meeting President Nelson Mandela are one of Cabral's forever heartbeats, as he witnessed Black leadership in one of the most dynamic liberated countries in the world.
The landscape of Jean's life was broad and rich. Along with her unwavering press for equal rights and the liberation of her people, "Jean was very demanding about food: the potato chips had to be Utz and no other; the crabs for the crab cakes had to come from the Chesapeake Bay and nowhere else; and Yaka Mien (a Cajun/Creole/Chinese type of beef noodle soup) was a must!" according to her sister Lois Wiley.
Along with her feature articles appearing in Essence, her commentaries and investigative reports aired on WHUR, KPFA and KQED. She also provided coverage of Mandela's 1990 visit to Oakland and was active in the anti-apartheid movement. In 2010, her "Letter to My Adolescent Son" was published in Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC. As the founder of Collage Literary Studio, she also served as an editor and literary consultant for groundbreaking projects at the Institute of the Black World. Environmental justice activist and architect Carl Anthony recalls, "Her comments were critical to the structural stages of his book The Earth, The City and The Hidden Narrative of Race.
Jean also served on the staff for the National Center for Law and Economic Justice which provides legal representation, support and advice to people living in poverty. She also taught at the University of the District of Columbia and University of California at Berkeley.
Throughout her life, not just in formal classrooms but in everything she did, she was always a teacher. She was the best kind of teacher, the kind of teacher who encouraged (and yes, provoked) others to think for themselves — whether they realized they were her students or not. And she was the kind of teacher who when she did offer a point of view it was so insightful that it opened new levels of perspective and depths of understanding. Civil Rights Veteran Bruce Hartford recalls, "Her teaching was always shaped and given spirit by her deep commitment to freedom, justice, and equality for all. So, it is no accident that so many SNCC activists came out of Tuskeggee in the two years she taught there, people including Sammy Young, Gwen Patton, Jimmy Rogers, Mary Billup, Ann Swint, Wazir Peacock and Michael Wright." According to Theresa El-Amin, "I was won to the struggle in the classroom of Jean Wiley at Tuskegee in 1966."
Her world also being a devoted grandmother and great grandmother, cherishing those relationships with her granddaughter Breijanee Wiley, and great granddaughters Shariyah and Narii Harris.
The Race men and women of her youth and spirit of SNCC anchored her at every turn of her adult life and the foundation of her legacy lies therein, including her work with the Bay Area Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement.
Standing alongside the road of her legacy are her extensive family including twin sisters Joyce Dyson and Lois Wiley, a host of nieces and nephews, granddaughter Breijanee, two great grandchildren, her goddaughter author and scholar Dr. Noliwe Rooks, scores of friends, movement comrades, young people to whom she was an auntie and mentor and most especially her son Cabral who devoted the past four years of his life to surrounding his mother with compassionate care in their home in Oakland, California. Her niece Shiree Dyson also was an integral part of her support system throughout Jean's long battles against cancer. Her niece Ayisha Dyson and nephews Malcolm Wiley, Keith Dyson and Toure Dyson kept the circle of her life turning.
In spirit Jean joins other ancestors, including her friend New York Times journalist C. Gerald Fraser, as they gaze out of the mosaic windows of the Ancestral Cathedral on to the streets of Baltimore, Johannesburg and Oakland watching as young people lift their visions standing on the shoulders of ancestors and raising their voices to crush white supremacy and the patriarchy, and build liberated intersectional communities.
Her life will be honored in early 2020 with celebrations in Oakland and Washington, DC.
*"Letter to My Adolescent Son," Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC edited by edited by Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan, Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, Jean Smith Young, Dorothy M. Zellner, University of Illinois Press, 2010.
Note from Ann Chinn where her father Professor Harold B. Chinn documents Jean's role as a fierce debater.
The SNCC Digital Archive — Interview with Jean Wiley by Bruce Hartford
The Daphne Muse Correspondence Collection: Documenting Black Life and Culture across the Diaspora 1958 to the Present
Copyright © Daphne Muse
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site.
Copyright to the article above belongs to the author.