Joann Malone was “awakened” to racism in 1963.
The Sisters of Loretto nun from Missouri had just arrived in Alabama for her first teaching assignment and was shocked by the structural racism she saw all around her. The extent of that racism soon became horrifically clear when four young girls died in a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
Distressed by the violence, the young, white nun sought out members of the local African-American community — individuals, churches and schools — for understanding and healing. At the same time, she began questioning the institutions, including the Sisterhood, which had formed her.
This “awakening,” as Malone describes it, was the beginning of a six-decade journey of activism and social justice, a journey that would see her leave the Sisters, land in jail and join in protest with influential Black leaders such as Black Panther Fred Hampton.
Eventually it brought her to Montgomery County, where she embarked on a teaching career that has inspired and trained a new generation of activists.
Malone, who lives in Takoma Park, chronicles this journey in her new book, appropriately titled, “Awake to Racism.”
The title is a call to action, a call Malone wishes she did not have to make, but one she feels is essential given the racial justice issues that have rocked the country over the last few years.
“I feel so fortunate to have been alive and involved in social movements for all these years,” she says, “yet some days it feels like we haven’t made any progress at all.”
Malone had accumulated and shared stories of her journey over the years, but several forces combined to provide the impetus for writing and self-publishing the book.
While sequestered because of the pandemic and watching the George Floyd story unfold on television, Malone enrolled in a writer’s workshop with the goal of producing a book in six months — coinciding with her 80th birthday. Her challenge was not coming up with material, but rather distilling down the numerous stories of her life into something manageable and targeted.
“In writing the book, I had to keep asking, how does this [particular incident] relate to the issue of racism and how does it help now?” she says.
Readers will undoubtedly make the connections.
This story originally appeared in our June/July 2021 issue.