Jesse Williams’ Acceptance Speech and Lena Baker
Last night, I caught some of the BET Awards on television. I don’t care much for commercial television. During commercials, I tend to walk away from the television, get distracted and do not return to watching the program. Survivor is the only program that I set time aside to watch when it airs. It’s not on television year round so I’m not tied down to the television for an hour or two every week.
When I turn on the television, it’s mostly to news channels or I channel surf for movies. Last night, I had a phone call and decided to turn on the television and channel surf when I discovered that the BET Awards were on.
The other week as I channel surfed, I came upon a movie titled Hope & Redemption: The Lena Baker Story. It’s strange now that I think about it because that night, the same friend called me who called last night. Maybe he should call me more often in the evenings.
By now, you might be asking what the Lena Baker story has to do with the BET Awards? BET awarded Jesse Williams the 2016 Humanitarian Award. His acceptance speech spoke volumes.
Jesse Williams is 34-years old. He is a Grey’s Anatomy star and a Black Lives Matter activist. In October 2014, Mr. Williams joined protests in Ferguson, Missouri. He is also an actor and executive producer of Stay Woke, a documentary about the Black Lives Matter movement. He met with President Obama earlier this year to discuss his humanitarian work.
Here’s a confession. I’m ashamed to say that had I not watched the BET Awards, I would not know about Jesse Williams. Little by little, I’m learning more about the Black Lives Matter movement, so I give BET the credit for introducing me to Jesse Williams.
By now, you’re probably saying, “Come on Xena! Tell us what that has to do with Lena Baker.”
Lena Baker was born in Cuthbert, Georgia in June 1900. She was Black, born into a family of share croppers. As a child, she picked cotton and later worked as a maid for White families.
The film version fills-in much of Lena’s childhood and young adult hood which may or may not be true. For example, the film shows that Lena was an alcoholic. She didn’t like home brew, but did like real whiskey. It was Lena’s last words documented in history that causes me to believe that she was an alcoholic, she said,“Where I was I could not overcome it.”
In 1944, Lena started working as a maid for a White man named Ernest Knight. He was an alcoholic and a widower. He did not want Lena to leave his house. He and Lena got drunk together, and he began using her for sex.
When Lena did leave his house, Knight would find her and bring her back to his house. His son found Lena sleeping in his dad’s bed once, beat her, and had the Sheriff tell Lena that was against the law for colored and whites to mix. He threatened to arrest her for trespassing if she returned. Lena left, but Knight brought her back to his house and locked her inside when he left.
One night, Lena and Knight argued. A gun was involved and Lena shot and killed Knight. Lena reported the incident and said that she acted in self-defense.
On August 14, 1944, Lena was placed on trial for capital murder. Her court-appointed attorney, W.L. Ferguson, called no witnesses in Lena’s defense. The jury of her peers consisted of all White men. Lena’s trial, and the verdict, took less than one-day. Lena was executed by electric chair on March 5, 1945. Lena didn’t die right away. It took several shocks and 6 minutes for her to die.
Lena Baker is the only woman who was electrocuted by the State of Georgia.
As the credits rolled at the end of the movie, I thought to myself, “Lena was not executed because she killed a White man. She was executed because she thought she was free – free to choose to go to her own home, a home where there was no whiskey, and no forced sex. ”
The following day, I was talking with a friend about the movie and my thoughts. It’s strange, because I suspect some would have doubt of what I thought after seeing that movie and hearing what Jesse Williams said in his acceptance speech.
Of course, in 1944, slavery was unconstitutional, but some states passed laws that kept slavery alive. The spirit of those laws was intended to circumvent the 13th Amendment. Jim Crow has been replaced with stand your ground law, conceal carry, police union policies, and a certain attitude that Jesse Williams spoke about in his acceptance speech. It inspired and gave me energy to write this. Mr. Williams said;
“But freedom is always conditional here. ‘You’re free!’ they keeping telling us. ‘But she would be alive if she hadn’t acted so… free.’
Mr. Williams called out the names of Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland. In the 21st Century, whether by bullet, choke hold, or lynching by garbage bag, they died for believing they were free; doing what free children do — doing what free adults do; talking on the street with friends; driving a car; speaking up for their rights.