I interview longtime activists about their experience with initiating and nurturing social change in their communities. This month’s feature is Dr. Barbara Reynolds, activist, veteran journalist, author, and ordained minister. A native of Columbus, Ohio, Dr. Reynolds has lived and worked in Maryland and Washington, D.C. area for many years.

Tell us a little about your background. How did you grow up and what made you decide to get involved in community organizing?

I've been a journalist since I was 17 years old. I'm 78 now. I started writing for the community newspaper in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. That really interested me. I went to Ohio State University where I earned my Bachelor’s degree in 1966.  

I wanted to be a pharmacist, but there was also a newspaper man that I knew. When I went to declare my major in college, the dean said they didn't have any colored women who became journalists. My first dream had been to be a musician since I played the trumpet and violin in high school, but they said I couldn't be in the university band because I was a woman. I said, they don’t want to let me be anything - well, I'm going to be something! 

So, I grew up going from city to city pursuing journalism in Ohio. They kept telling me they didn't hire women or black people at all. I came in before affirmative action, so you know it was a challenge.

I ended up working as a parole officer and pursued social work in Cleveland. I eventually got a job at the Cleveland Press and covered the first riot before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. I was one of the first editors at Ebony and became one of the first Black women at the Chicago Tribune. I also served at USA Today for 13 years as an editorial writer and board member. 

As an activist, I had two wars – the one on the outside where I had to fight for the rights of Blacks in these institutions and newsrooms and the one inside of me, where I had to fight for myself as a woman. It was quite painful.

I was so insignificant that many wouldn't even accept me as a female OR a Black person who could write well. We never had the right perspective because I was not who they wanted me to be. They wanted me to just stick to writing on cooking, and I don't even cook to this day! But, since I was a woman, that's what they were expecting. 

I was thankful to connect with the Black community which helped me. I brought what I learned in the streets into the newsroom. I didn't understand why I was talking to Black leaders—educated and smart—who didn't see or address the injustices. They didn't want to cover that - it just wasn't as important to them. I had to keep fighting for our rights to equality because there weren’t a lot of blacks covering news in Chicago. 

In fact, I initially got into the newsroom because the Black Panther Party said they wouldn't talk to anyone unless they talked to a Black person. So, I was there. I would go on the West Side, where white reporters wouldn’t go because they were afraid. I knew Fred Hampton as a community leader, and I thought he was a smart man. He wanted to be a lawyer and was interested in doing big things for us.

They called me at 3 am to go over to the West Side to do the story. I was told they had just killed Fred. At the time, I was dating a policeman and called him to help me. He told me it was a shoot-in because all the bullets were coming from the inside. They hated me for labeling it that way, but I refused to let them use my name if they didn’t phrase it that way. They really wanted the public to believe the Black Panthers was this terrible Black group. 

I eventually got fired from the Chicago Tribune when Dick Gregory was in Iran. I covered the story when he went to talk to them, but they took out the story because they didn’t want it to be out there that a Black man could do that. So, I wrote it as a cover story for Playboy and was fired for that. My only crime was that I didn't think like that they thought. 

When you really look at the wrongs of institutional racism in every facet of our society, it was really something that I lasted this long. 

Who and/or what inspired your journey in activism? Where do you continue to draw your inspiration from? 

Dick Gregory was something. I would travel and have stories for him.

Coretta Scott King also embraced me. She just took me under her wing. I would stay in the same house with her and Dr. King when we went to Atlanta. She was really married to Dr. King as well as the movement, and they were able to live the dream. I got to meet her parents, and she taught me that nonviolence was a way of life, not just a program. She saw firsthand what it was like when Emmett Till was killed and the four little girls in the church. I learned about grace and public service from her.

I covered and stood with Shirley Chisolm, too. I admired how brave she was because Black men really didn’t support her due to their sexism.

My bishop, Alfred Owens, also inspired me. Being a minister, I graduated from Ohio School of Divinity and then seminary school in Dayton in 1997. I just felt led to serve in that way. I became a born again Christian and got closer to God.

I was around such great people, but I still had to really fight to be respected as an African-American and as a woman. 

Take us back into a moment that you felt was a huge impact in shaping who you are today.

My first experience of experiencing racism was when I left Ohio to go to Selma. Growing up, adults hid stuff like that from us. As a student at Ohio State, no one would tell us about the dilemmas of racism. Dr. King was so huge in our mind, so we went down south to work with him, not really knowing what the south was really like. We had no idea that integration was like a death sentence!

They put us in homes for Blacks at night. We didn’t get the harshness because we were teens. They told us don’t go out after dark, but we went out anyway and wound up at a roadside inn where we integrated and turned on the music. They took the cord out and chased us for miles. At that time, it settled in that this is what it means to have a Black face in America. 


What do you believe is the biggest obstacle in activism and community organizing today? How do you believe this can best be addressed?

A lot of activists today aren’t committed to nonviolence. I was thinking, as a mother, and didn't want them to be killed by starting violence. I wanted them to have church leaders with them because i was starting to hear some of the rhetoric that got many Black men killed during the Black Panthers’ days. 

But, after George Floyd, I think the movement has really blossomed and is going in the right direction. I think his death was so different because I never saw with my own two eyes, a Black man being killed with no weapon and pleading for his life. If you saw that and have any kind of humanity, you would say this is unacceptable. 


If you had one word to describe your community, what would it be? Why? 


In many sectors, we're not even thought to be human, so we have to fight. Not just for us, but for the next generations. We have to think about legacy-builders. That's what Black people are. We have to continue to pass on activism until we are treated with the dignity and respect as children of God. 

What projects/initiatives are you currently working on?

I'm starting a national prayer group in January 2021. It will be on Zoom, and I’m soliciting people to be prayer warriors . I'm currently the chaplain for Black Women for Positive Change.

On January 18th, I’ll be at Florida State University to speak on the legacy of Coretta Scott King. In 2017, I wrote a memoir, My Life, My Love, My Legacy, which highlights several admirable aspects of her life.

Right now, I’m also writing two books. One is about how technology is leading us away from depending on God and worshipping. The other is a novel about a Black robot.

Is there anything else you’d like to share? 

Activism is not a hard word to think about. It means 'act'. If you see something, say something. Like John Lewis, start some good trouble.