Gloria White-Hammond to deliver Ruth First lecture

Annual talk honors the memory of a South African freedom fighter

Gloria White-Hammond

Gloria White-Hammond, an impassioned advocate for women and children from urban America to the frontiers of Sudan, Darfur and Chad, will deliver the annual Ruth First Memorial Lecture at 5 p.m. Thursday, March 7, in International Lounge, Usdan Student Center.

Pediatrician, co-founder and co-pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, founding co-chair of the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur and leader of the national Million Voices for Darfur Campaign, White-Hammond combines the speaking ability of an evangelical preacher with the dynamism of a first-rate social organizer.

She has spoken at Brandeis several times previously, delivering a talk in the Social Justice Lecture Series in 2010 and keynoting the annual Martin Luther King Day observance in 2011.

Her talk this week will be about the work of My Sister’s Keeper, a faith-inspired multiracial collective, co-founded by White-Hammond, that provides humanitarian assistance to communities of women globally, with a focus on Sudan.

Ruth First, to whose memory the annual lecture is dedicated, was a heroine of the struggle for racial equality in South Africa who was assassinated in 1982.

White-Hammond has a long history of involvement in community service. She is the founder of the church-based creative writing/mentoring ministry called Do The Write Thing for high-risk black adolescent females. The project, which began in 1994 with four girls, now serves over 550 young women through small groups in two Boston public schools, two juvenile detention facilities in Boston, and on-site at Bethel AME Church. In 2003, she became co-convener of the Red Tent Group, which brings together Christian and Jewish women for small group Torah and Bible study.
White-Hammond has worked as a medical missionary in several African countries including Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa. Prior to South Sudan gaining its independence, she made multiple trips into the war-torn region and was involved in obtaining the freedom of 10,000 women and children enslaved during the two-decade-long civil war there.
My Sister's Keeper, which was founded in 2002, operates under the auspices of Bethel AME Church. Organizers say that religious faith is neither a prerequisite nor a mandatory feature of the organization’s programs, but that faith “is the bedrock upon which the work was formed, is sustained, and through which community transformation through sisterhood becomes possible.”

During her MLK Day speech at Brandeis, she told a rapt audience in the campus center theater that “well-behaved women rarely make history”  and challenged female members of the audience to be “warrior women.”

“I am looking for women who are poorly behaved and willing to act out and speak out in the cause of social justice,” she said, recalling early trips to conflict zones in Africa, when she first saw the face of genocide, and had to become accustomed to getting off a plane and looking for a fox hole. “I cried and cried and said, ‘God, I can’t do this,’” White-Hammond said. “And in that moment God began to minister to me.”

“Warrior women must step forward with determination,” she said, “because the reality is that this is very hard work.”

ruth first
Ruth First

Ruth First was a white, Jewish South African who was dedicated to the freedom of all South Africans. The child of Communist South Africans, she devoted her life to the Communist Party and, as the Johannesburg reporter for the radical weekly Guardian, exposed the Bethal farm labor scandal, in which persons sentenced for petty offences under the Pass Laws were covertly sent to work in terrible conditions in farm-prisons. She helped to organize the resulting potato boycott campaign. The newspaper was repeatedly banned and reappeared under different names.

In 1963, First was arrested, imprisoned and released on condition that she would leave South Africa permanently. She continued to work against apartheid in exile in Mozambique, where she was killed by a letter bomb in 1982.

The endowment supporting the lecture series was established by Rose Schiff, Eileen Schiff Wingard and Zina Schiff Eisenberg in memory of their beloved daughter and sister, Louise Joy Schiff. It provides for annual lectures on black liberation in southern Africa. Faculty of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies, which arranges the lectures, decided to name the series in memory of First.

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