Ida B. Wells is the most unsung freedom fighter in U.S. history. Her pursuit of justice spurred the Great Migration, halted the barbarous—nationwide–epidemic of lynching, and helped birth the NAACP. Born a slave—in Holly Springs, Mississippi—Wells overcame, what seemed to be, insurmountable odds to become one of the most prophetic leaders our nation has ever produced. In fact, long before Rosa Parks, Wells refused to give up her seat on a train in deference to a White patron; her case was tried in court and she initially won.[i] In spite of not being acknowledged, and remembered, for this, or many of her other accomplishments, few people have affected the history and trajectory of our nation like Wells.
When Wells was just sixteen, both of her parents and her infant brother died in the Yellow Fever Epidemic of l878; a plague that killed over three hundred people in Holly Springs. Ida was the oldest of five remaining children (another brother died earlier of spinal meningitis) and upon her parents’ death, the community decided to distribute the children to be adopted by other families. Ida, at the age of sixteen, refused to allow her family to be separated and decided to step up and shoulder the burden of caring and providing for her younger siblings. This virtuous decision dramatically altered her life, but she did not allow it to consume her.
Faced with a nearly impossible situation, Wells confronted it with fearless tenacity. In the face of the overt racism and sexism plaguing our nation in 1878, she quit school, went to work, and with no credentials provided for a family of six. It was unheard of for a woman this young, bearing so many responsibilities, to independently support a family of this size. Due to this, many people throughout the community were highly suspicious of her and her ability to make ends meet. Rumors spread about how she earned the money to support her family, and one particular instance set the town’s gossip mill ablaze. Dr. Gray, a white physician, decided to return the savings that Wells’ deceased father entrusted to him, as a way of aiding the family. Gray met Wells in the town square to return the money and when the townspeople noticed the monetary exchange, she was immediately branded a haram and was fervently accused of prostituting herself.[ii] Nevertheless, Ida used the majority of this money to enroll in Rust College and while at Russ, she got and maintained a job teaching in a rural school for three years.
When her brothers were old enough to settle into apprenticeships in carpentry, Ida took her sisters and moved to Memphis to live with her aunt. Upon arriving in Memphis, she was informed that she had to wait to take the credentialing examination for Memphis public school teachers, so in the meantime she decided to accept a teaching job in Woodstock, a rural community outside of the city. On May 4, 1884, twenty-two-year-old Ida boarded a train to Woodstock for her job, on the ride she was asked and then told by the train’s conductor to move out of her first class seat in order to accommodate a White patron. Wells purchased a first-class ticket and had every right to refuse to move and she did just that. In her autobiography, Wells wrote, “I refused, saying that the forward car [the “Jim Crow car”] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies’ car, I proposed to stay…[The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand…He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.”[iii] Wells was forcefully removed from the train and the other passengers–all whites–applauded.[iv]
Seventy-one years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus, Wells refused to acquiesce to the conductor’s unjust, White supremacist order to give up her seat. Wells sued the company, using the recently passed Civil Rights Act of 1875 to win the lawsuit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in 1887. She was awarded $500 as compensation for her damage, but the Tennessee Supreme Court soon after reversed the verdict. Infuriated by the Supreme Court’s decision, Wells began writing prophetic political columns highlighting injustices like the one perpetrated against her, particularly in church newspapers.
Soon after this injustice, Wells secured a job in the Memphis public schools and she used her savings to buy part ownership of a small Memphis newspaper, Free Speech and Headlight. During this time Wells discovered that she was being paid thirty dollars a month at her teaching job, while White teachers were being paid more than twice her salary.[v] In 1891, Wells was fired from teaching in the Memphis school system because of a scathing article she wrote highlighting and critiquing racism, institutional injustice, and particularly the unequal funding of Black schools by the board of education. After being fired, Wells became a full-time journalist.
As a journalist, Wells frequently wrote her editorials under the pseudonym “Iola,” for protection and as a way of garnering a broader readership. Within her writing she condemned lynching, violence against blacks, disfranchisement, disproportionate schools funding, institutional injustice, and White supremacy. Wells said, “It was through journalism that I found the real me.”[vi] Wells was an investigative reporter, before this term was used. In 1892, she investigated a story which crystallized her life’s calling. As Wells was beginning to make a name for herself as a prophetic voice in the city, she started investigating the tragic story of her three friends who were lynched on March 9, 1892.
Tom Moss–and two of his employees–Will Stewart and Calvin McDowell were beaten, tortured, and hung by a lynch mob in Memphis. Tom Moss, was not only a respected black store owner, but also one of Ida’s best friends; she was his daughter’s godmother. Ida dug deep to uncover the truth behind these murders and she ultimately discovered that her friends were murdered because of the financial success of The Peoples Grocery, Moss’ store. White businessmen in Memphis were feeling the economic strain from the success of flourishing Black businesses within the Black community, dollars which White businessmen were accustomed to receiving and thus felt entitled.
Wells writes about how White lynch mobs routinely tried to conceal their true motive for lynching under the veneer of rape accusations. This allowed them to legitimate their terrorist activities by claiming to defend the virtue and purity of White women. Wells says “No nation, savage or civilized, save only the United States of America, has confessed its inability to protect its women save by hanging, shooting, and burning alleged offenders.”[vii] Wells is the first scholar-activist to combat the caricature of Black males as brute, rapist, preying on White women. She exposes this narrative as a farce, as a pretext for legitimating the terrorist activities of White supremacists who were hell-bent on sustaining the oppressive racial hierarchy.
Wells’ writing was always bold; she routinely spoke hard words of truth to power. This case was no exception. In May of 1892, she warned Memphis’ White male citizens to be careful with their terrorism and caricature of Black men:
“Eight Negroes lynched since last issue of the Free Speech. Three were charged with killing white men and five with raping white women. Nobody in this section believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men assault white women. If Southern white men are not careful they will over-reach themselves and a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”[viii]
As a consequence of exposing what she unearthed in her investigation of her friend’s murder and her militant warnings to the White power structure, White elite put a bounty on her head and she was run out of town. Vigilante thugs threatened her life, destroyed her printing press, and warned her to never return to Memphis. These violent threats were meant to silence her and to suppress the truth that she excavated. Wells refused to concede to such tactics. She left Memphis, but only to continue exposing White supremacy and combating the vicious legacy of lynching nationwide. In fact, Wells’ crusade against lynch law in the United States ultimately took her beyond our nation’s borders. She lectured in Europe on the subject matter. Her biggest lecture tour was in Britain where she formed the British Anti-Lynching Society.
Upon being run out of Memphis, T. Thomas Fortune recruited Wells to write for his newspaper, The New York Age. And it was here, in New York, that she published her two seminal texts, Southern Horrors (1892) and A Red Record (1895). While in New York, Wells remained indignant about the attacks on her and the enduring presence of lynching throughout the nation. She used the power of the press to fight back, imploring Black residents of Memphis, and the South at large, to leave the South for the safer alternative, the North. Wells said “The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”[ix] While in New York, Wells became more aware that lynching was a nationwide problem and she decided to make a career of investigating and writing lynching exposés. Wells wrote, “Our country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob.”[x] Wells became intent upon mobilizing a movement committed to end this social ill, by any means necessary.
In 1893, Wells moved to Chicago. Wells was the first Black correspondent to be paid to write for a mainstream White newspaper, the Daily Inter-Ocean.[xi] Her first major story in Chicago exposed the ban on African-American exhibitors at the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition. Wells composed and circulated a pamphlet entitled “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Represented in the World’s Colombian Exposition.” In Chicago, Wells continued to lead the anti-lynching campaign and began to further expand her work into broader issues of segregation and in support of women’s suffrage. Her activism helped to prevent the establishment of segregated schools in Chicago and in 1986 she joined W.E. B. DuBois to work in the Niagara Movement, which advocated for the full civil rights for blacks. In 1909, Wells-Barnett helped DuBois and others form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and in 1913 she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, the first black suffrage organization. In 1930, she ran for the Illinois legislature, becoming one of the first black women to run for public office. A year later, in 1931, she died at the age of sixty-nine. Wells’ legacy and fearless activism was venerated in 1990 by the nation with the Ida B. Wells Commemorative Stamp.
The emergence of lynch law
The lynching era is an extremely unnerving period within our nation’s history. Due in large part to Wells, we know that during a fifty-year period ranging from 1890 to 1940, approximately 5,500 African Americans were documented as lynch victims.[xii] From 1889 to 1929, someone was lynched every four days.[xiii] The Tuskegee Institute, which documented lynching nationwide, could not report a year without a lynching for seventy-one consecutive years—until 1952.[xiv] Lynching reached its peak in 1892 shortly after Reconstruction ended. We should not take that to mean that lynchings became rare after 1892.[xv]
In fact, in 1907, the Governor of Mississippi James K. Vardaman says “If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.”[xvi]
Furthermore, in Phillips County Arkansas 237 Black people were lynched in 1919 during the Elaine race riot.[xvii] Due to realities such as this, the lynching era became known as the “Nadir Period,”[xviii] the lowest period of U.S. race relations. While Blacks were not the exclusive victims of lynchings, they were without question the primary prey of this form of vigilante “justice.”[xix]
It is also important to note that lynching was not a problem prior to emancipation. Wells explains, “In slave times the Negro was kept subservient and submissive by the frequent and severity of scourging, but, with freedom, a new system of intimidation came into vogue; the Negro was not only whipped and scourged, he was killed.”[xx] Because, as the following quote from historian Jaqueline Royster indicates, slaves were simply too profitable to kill:
The lynching of slaves was rare, first and foremost because it would result in a loss of property and profit. Obviously, it was more profitable to sell slaves than to kill them. Second, there were more advantages to planters when slaves were executed within the law, as planters were compensated for their lost “property.” Third, the lynching of slaves served to under-mind the power base of the South’s wealthy, white, landowning aristocracy. In effect, mob violence against slaves would have transferred the power of life and death from the hands of planters to the hands of the mob, whose numbers were quite likely to include non-elite whites, as well. Such a transfer of power would have loosened the systems of control, the general stronghold of the landed aristocrat over both economic and political life. The lynching of African Americans before the Civil War, therefore, was exceptional indeed.[xxi]
During the Nadir Period, the practice of lynching became so commonplace that the Tuskegee Institute, a predominately black institution in Alabama which later became Tuskegee University, decided in 1881 to begin issuing annual reports on lynchings occurring nationwide. Astonishingly, it was not until 1952 that the institution was able to report a year where there were no lynchings nationwide.
While popular belief still holds that lynchings only occurred in the South, this is not true. Lynching was a national sin; the South alone cannot be condemned for this grotesque practice. While it is true that lynching was particularly prevalent in the South, it was not exclusively a Southern horror. Lynchings were enacted as far North as Minnesota and Illinois, and as far West as California and Oregon. In fact, one of the largest spectacle lynchings to ever occur took place in Duluth Minnesota in 1920, where some accounts say as many as 10,000 people served as spectators at this lynching.[xxii] Moreover, this was not an anomaly for the North, we see virtually the same exact thing ten years later in Marion Indiana, on August 7th 1930. Reports estimate that as many as 15,000 people gathered at this lynching to watch two African American teenagers be tortured, mutilated, and ultimately executed.[xxiii] In both cases, African American men were killed for allegedly raping white women.
Lynchings were routinely photographed and turned into postcards, which would then be used to promote future lynchings.[xxiv] According to historian Ralph Ginzberg, “lynching [which also frequently included burning, castrating, & disfiguring the victim,] were spectacles, announced in advance, attended by Whites, including women and children, and covered on assignment by newspaper reporters in a manner not unlike contemporary coverage of sporting events.”[xxv] People would send these postcards to their friends inviting them to attend upcoming lynchings as if these executions were some sort of theater at a local country club. Wells also wrote that “the nineteenth century lynching mob cuts off ears, toes, and fingers, strips off flesh, and distributes portions of the body as souvenirs among the crowd.” The most disturbing part about this is that people who self-identified as Christians played a significant role in these events, in both the promotion and execution of lynchings.
Furthermore, it was normative for infants and children to be taken by their parents and grandparents to see these “spectacle” lynchings. This was an intergenerational sin! Imagine the psychological trauma of growing up seeing this sort of dehumanization on a semi-regular basis. This had to profoundly impact these young minds. Being taken to public executions, where Blacks were looked upon as a kind of game animal to be caught and executed for pleasure, had to permanently hallmark the image of Black inferiority within the young, impressionable, minds of White children. This does not even begin to address the catastrophic psychological effects this had to have on the entire African American community, who saw family members, friends, and neighbors persecuted with such brutality.
Dr. Cornel West says that “Ida B. Wells is not only unique, but she is the exemplary figure full of prophetic fire in the face of American terrorism, which is American Jim Crow and Jane Crow, when lynching occurred every two and a half days for over fifty years in America.”[xxvi] West goes on to say that Wells was the sole African American leader of her era’s acclaimed leaders, male or female, who used their voice to prophetically galvanize the masses against this atrocity and sacrificed her social stature and popularity in order to speak truth to power. West says,
Du Bois, who did want to talk about civil rights, who did want to talk about political rights, but in no way targeted the lynching face of American terrorism the way Ida B. Wells did. Ida B. Wells, in so many ways, teaches us something that we rarely want to acknowledge: that the Black freedom movement has always been an anti-terrorist movement, that Black people in America had a choice between creating a Black al-Qaeda or a movement like Ida B. Wells’, which was going to call into question the bestiality and barbarity and brutality of Jim Crow and American terrorism and lynching, but would do it in the name of something that provided a higher moral ground and a higher spiritual ground given her Christian faith, not opting for a Black al-Qaeda.[xxvii]
West is correct in naming lynching as American terrorism. West states that “when people think of terrorism, they usually think of … Islamic brothers and sisters, whereas, of course, terrorism has been integral to … the American democratic experiment, beginning with indigenous peoples and slavery. But after the Civil War, we get a new form of terrorism … that sits at the center of American life, and Ida B. Wells forces us to come to terms with that.”[xxviii]
In the midst of what may be a new Nadir of race relations in our nation, we have a lot to learn from Ida B. Wells. She uncompromisingly spoke truth to power and almost single-handedly exposed the horrors of lynching. Today we find ourselves in a similar predicament as Wells did, but it remains to be seen if we will face it with the same integrity, tenacity, and fortitude. In the face of racial despair and terror, let us look to the life, legacy, and witness of Ida B. Wells as an exemplar of faith expressing itself in love, of placing the needs of others before our own, and bearing witness to the truth of the Gospel in the face of death!
[i] Not surprisingly, the case was later retried and overturned in the defendants favor.
[ii] Cornel West and Christa Buschendorf Black Prophetic Fire, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2014), 140.
[iii] Ida B. Wells, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, ed. Alfreda M. Duster (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1970), 38.
[v] West and Buschendorf Black Prophetic Fire, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2014), 146.
[vi] Paula Giddings, Ida: A Sword Among Lions; Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2009), 69.
[vii] Ida B. Wells-Barnett, “Lynch Law in America,” The Arena 23.1 (January 1900): http://courses.washington.edu/spcmu/speeches/idabwells.htm
[viii] Ida B. Wells, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells, ed. Alfreda M. Duster (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 65-66.
[ix] Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), 42.
[x] Wells-Barnett, “Lynch Law in America,” http://courses.washington.edu/spcmu/speeches/idabwells.htm
[xi] Ibid, 147.
[xii] Rayford Logan. The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877-1901 (New York, NY: Dial Press, 1954), 23.
[xiii] Ken Wytsma, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and
Privilege (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 69.
[xiv] Michael J. Perry, Human Rights in the Constitutional Law of the United States
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 9.
[xvi] Stewart Emory Tolnay, E. M. Beck, A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930, (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 28.
[xviii] Nadir means the lowest point; time of greatest depression. For U.S. race relations, this period of time following Reconstruction is identified as the era where racism was worse than any other period in our postbellum nation. This phrase was coined by Rayford Logan.
[xix] Ken Gonzales-Day, Lynching in the West, 1850-1935, details how in California, Latino/as–particularly Mexicans–were the primary victims of lynching, but the book also states that a few African Americans, 41 Native Americans, & 29 Chinese immigrants were lynched in California during this period of time.
[xx] Ida B. Wells. “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” in Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997), 1.
[xxi] Jacqueline Jones Royster. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997), 8.
[xxiv] James Allen. Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America; http://withoutsanctuary.org/.
[xxv] Ralph Ginzberg, 100 Years of Lynching (New York, NY: Lancer publishing: 1962), 46. Lynching frequently included ritualized burning at the stake, castration, and mutilation in addition to the victim being hung from a tree.
[xxvi] West and Buschendorf Black Prophetic Fire, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2014), 140.
[xxvii] Ibid, 141.