Rhonda Y. Williams on Black Women, History, and Social Justice

By Gisely Ruiz

Rhonda Y. Williams (ΦBK, University of Maryland College Park, 1989) spoke at Mississippi State University on March 28 as part of a series celebrating Women’s History Month. Her lecture, “Your Silence Will Not Protect You: Black Women, History, and Social Justice,” inspired students to achieve a greater understanding of the ways power is structured through race and gender.

“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 explained. “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’s lecture also addressed what is needed from young people today to engage in social justice efforts. “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,” Williams emphasized. “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.”

A native of Baltimore, Williams is currently a professor of history and the founder and director of the postdoctoral fellowship in African American studies at Case Western Reserve University, as well as the founder and director of the Social Justice Institute. Williams earned her PhD in history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1998 and her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland College Park in 1989, where she became that university’s first black salutatorian in its then 187-year history. 

Williams’s areas of specialization include manifestations of race and gender inequality on urban space and policy, history of low-income people’s lives and activism, social justice and its movements, as well as illicit narcotics economies in the post 1940s United States. Currently, her scholarly work focuses on black power politics, the war on poverty, low-income black women’s grassroots organizations, and urban and housing policy. She has also authored a number of books during her prolific career such as Concrete Demands: The Search for Black Power in the 20th Century (2015) and the award-winning The Politics of Public Housing: Black Women’s Struggles against Urban Inequality (2004).  

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

Gisely Ruiz is an art history major at the University of California, Riverside. UC Riverside is home to the Iota of California Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.