Barbie, Ida Wells, and the Legacy of Justice

I never played with Barbies as a child. I just wasn’t into dolls. I’d rather roam the woods, ride my bike, and play sports. Well into my years as a local church pastor, however, I was in a women’s group where Barbie became a beloved icon of women’s empowerment rather than a symbol of a standard of physical beauty that most women could never achieve.

It has been gratifying to see that Mattel, the producer of Barbie, is, indeed, keeping up with the times by creating different Barbies that do not “fit the mold” as far as traditional feminine beauty and roles. Therefore, I am delighted to acknowledge that on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Mattel’s Inspiring Women Series is releasing to select major retailers the Ida B. Wells doll, celebrating the famous African-American Black journalist of the early 1900s. The doll shows Wells in a floor-length dress, holding a miniature replica of the “Memphis Free Speech” newspaper, where she was both editor and co-owner.

Knowing how important it is for girls and boys alike to have inspiring role models, the Barbie Inspiring Women Series honors women throughout history who have been examples of courage and determination. Ida Wells was born into slavery in 1862, yet she was able to overcome many obstacles to become a journalist and courageous activist for civil rights and women’s suffrage. Wells married Ferdinand R. Barnett in 1895 and, from then on, used the last name Wells-Barnett. Ida and Ferdinand had four children, and Ida was responsible for starting the first African-American kindergarten in Chicago. She was a candidate for the Illinois State Senate in 1930 but lost.

Wells-Barnett was part owner of a Memphis, Tennessee newspaper and boldly wrote of the inequality she experienced as an African-American. She also spoke out forcefully about the epidemic of lynching, the systemic and brutal killing of African Americans in order to reinforce white supremacy.

As an anti-lynching activist, Wells was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for her “outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.” She also helped found the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“I am honored that Barbie has chosen to celebrate my great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells, as part of its Inspiring Women Series,” said Michelle Duster, Wells’ great-granddaughter and author of Ida B. Wells, Voice of Truth, in a statement. “My great-grandmother was a trailblazer, who courageously followed her convictions and challenged the status quo by fighting for civil rights and women’s suffrage. This is an incredible opportunity to shine a light on her truth and enduring legacy to empower a new generation to speak up for what they believe in.”

Mattel, Inc. said in a recent Instagram post, “#Barbie is proud to honor the incredible Ida B. Wells as the newest role model in our Inspiring Women series, dedicated to spotlighting heroes who paved the way for generations of girls to dream big and make a difference. Born into slavery, Ida grew to become a journalist, activist, and suffragist – bringing light to the stories of injustice that Black people faced in her lifetime and co-founding several organizations including the NAACP. When kids learn about heroes like Ida B. Wells, they don’t just imagine a better future – they know they have the power to make it come true.” Other dolls that have been released in the Inspiring Women Series include Dr. Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, and Amelia Earhart. I am grateful for Mattel and their effort to create dolls for both boys and girls that honor heroes in our world.

It is no coincidence that the Ida Wells doll is being released on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which is observed on the third Monday of January each year. It is a time when we remember the legacy of Dr. King and all those who have and continue to be leaders in the struggle for racial justice. We also recommit ourselves to living our lives in a way that honors and respects the humanity and gifts of all people. I invite you to use this prayer from The United Methodist Book of Worship (pp. 434-435) in your devotions today and throughout the week as you remember and celebrate the courage of those who paved for a way for justice and equality.

We remember the conviction of Martin Luther king, Jr., that

  “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor;

   it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Therefore, let us pray

  for courage and determination by those who are oppressed….  

We remember Martin’s warning that

  “a negative peace which is the absence of tension”

  is less than “a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Therefore, let us pray that those who work for peace in our world

  May cry out first for justice….

We remember Martin’s insight that

  “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality

    tied in a single garment of destiny.

  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Therefore, let us pray that we may see nothing in isolation,

  but may know ourselves bound to one another

    and to all people under heaven….

We remember Martin’s lament that

  “the contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.

  It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo.

  Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church,

    the power structure of the average community is consoled

    by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”

Therefore, let us pray

  that neither this congregation nor any congregation of Christ’s people

    may be silent in the face of wrong,

  but that we may be disturbers of the status quo

    when that is God’s call to us….

We remember Martin’s

  “hope that dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away

  and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted

    from our fear-drenched communities

  and in some not too distance tomorrow

  the radiant stars of love and brotherhood

    will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

Therefore, in faith, let us commend ourselves and our work for justice

  to the goodness of almighty God.[i]



(Quotations from Letter from the Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.,

Litany by W.B. McClain and L.H. Stookey)

[i] The United Methodist Book of Worship, Nashville, TN, The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992, pp. 434-435.









[i] The United Methodist Book of Worship, Nashville, TN, The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992, pp. 434-435.

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