“I’m not a big enough man to change the world. But I can put a dent in it.”–WINFRED REMBERT
By John Cole Vodicka
Who is Winfred Rembert, you might ask? Winfred Rembert died on March 31 at his New Haven, Connecticut home. He was 75. In the New York Times obituary this week the headline noted that Mr. Rembert “Carved His Pain in Works of Art.”
I did not know Winfred Rembert, but for nearly 20 years I walked and worked with folks who did. Mr. Rembert grew up in the small southwest Georgia town of Cuthbert in Randolph County. While working for a rural civil rights organization, the Prison & Jail Project (PJP), I made many trips to Cuthbert to observe in court, visit at the county jail, meet with families of defendants and listen and learn from Randolph County community activists. The PJP and my home were located in Americus in Sumter County, about 40 miles from Cuthbert.
In fact, I think I first heard Winfred Rembert’s name mentioned in 1995, while participating in the 30th anniversary of what is now known as the “Americus Movement.” As was true in so many towns in the south’s Black Belt during the 1960s, Americus had its civil rights movement that involved hundreds of African Americans and a few whites, most of them young folk. Beginning in 1963, protesters marched and picketed in Americus. Over the next several years, dozens of activists were arrested and jailed in Sumter, Lee, Dougherty and Randolph counties. In 1965, after four Black women were arrested for “standing in a ‘whites only’ line to vote,” SCLC and SNCC joined with local Americus organizers to stage non-violent protest involving more than 600 people. John Lewis led the march. Law enforcement responded with violence and arrests.
Winfred Rembert was there. He was 19 years old. He was arrested and jailed. While being physically threatened by a sheriff’s deputy after he’d deliberately – but non-violently – stopped up the toilet in his jail cell, Mr. Rembert fought back, took the deputy’s gun, and escaped. He was captured not long afterward and placed in the trunk of a car and driven out of town. A mob of whites took him from the vehicle and tied a noose around his ankles and swung him upside down from a tree, threatening to castrate him. A white person stepped out from the mob and somehow stopped what would have been a lynching. Instead, Mr. Rembert went to prison – for seven years.
In prison, Winfred Rembert picked cotton on the chain gang. But he also learned to read and write. And he taught himself to work with leather using tools and dyes, and started making small items like billfolds. He made art from leather the rest of his life. Much of his art, according to the New York Times obituary, “excavated his memories.” Using “blades of ivory and a mallet, he reproduced – in painstaking detail – his near-lynching and gangs of prisoners in their zebra-striped uniforms with sledgehammers and shovels.” Mr. Rembert’s artwork also showed lively scenes of the juke joints and pool halls of his youth in southwest Georgia.
Eventually, Winfred Rembert became an artist of some renown, exhibiting in Harlem, Manhattan, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Some of his works sold for $10,000 and more. In 2011, Mr. Rembert was invited back to Cuthbert where the mayor declared “Winfred Rembert Day.” Two years later, he was invited to participate in the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Americus Movement, where he met Jimmy Carter.
“It was important for him to go back and be recognized in Georgia as somebody who had lived a worthy life, not a nobody who had left in chains,” said Erin I. Kelly. “That trip was part of a larger story of him going home, sharing his art and the story of his life.
After learning of his death earlier this week, I discovered a moving, fascinating and inspiring short documentary about Winfred Rembert. It’s titled “Ashes to Ashes” and is produced by his friend and New Haven artist and anti-lynching activist Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker. It’s 25 minutes long. Please set aside a half-hour to sit still and watch.
Bearing Witness curates a list of media:
Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Y. Davis
Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America & It’s Urgent Lessons for Our Own, Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson
Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration, Emily Bazelon
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond
Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin
Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why it is Killing Us, Shane Claiborne
How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson
Locking Up Our Own: Crime & Punishment in Black America, James Forman, Jr.
Nobody Knows My Name, (Essays), James Baldwin
One Day When I Was Lost, James Baldwin (screenplay written for a Malcolm X movie never produced)
Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court, Amy Bach
Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms, Maya Schenwar & Victoria Law
Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey Into the Business of Punishment, Shane Bauer
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II, Douglas Blackmon
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander
The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together, Heather McGhee
Usual Cruelty: Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System, Alex Karakatsanis
A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest Gaines
Billy, Albert French
If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward
The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
I Am Not Your Negro (James Baldwin documentary film, Raoul Peck, Director, Netflix, 2018)
13th: From Slave to Criminal With One Amendment (Documentary film, Ava DuVernay, Director, Netflix, 2016
True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality (Equal Justice Initiative documentary film, www.eji.org)
John Vodicka is a member of Oconee Street United Methodist Church, an organizer of Athens Area Courtwatch Project and a leader of Oconee Street UMC’s Racial Justice Task Force. He publishes his observations in a weekly column called Bearing Witness.