Ida B. Wells: Condemning America’s Racism

Introduction

“The lynching record for a quarter of a century merits the thoughtful study of the American people. It presents three salient facts:

First, lynching is color-line murder.

Second, crimes against women is the excuse, not the cause.

Third, it is a national crime and requires a national remedy.”

Explanation

This extract is from a speech delivered by Ida B. Wells at the National Negro Conference of 1909. It demonstrates her lifelong commitment to the anti-lynching cause.

Ida B. Wells

Wells was born a slave on July 16, 1862, in the midst of the American Civil War. She was the daughter of James Wells and Elizabeth Warrenton, who became active political activists after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Her father helped found a college for former slaves. Her parent's commitment to education and politics informed her own career as an educator, researcher, and journalist, who always advocated for equality and justice for African-Americans.  

History

In 1878, Ida’s parents and brother died during a yellow fever epidemic, leaving the rest of her siblings under her care. In order to provide for her family, Ida started her teaching career. Later, in 1882, she would move to Memphis with her siblings. 

An incident in 1884 prompted her outspoken activism against segregation and racial injustices. Despite having bought a first-class train ticket, Ida was forced to give up her train seat. She sued the train company and initially won the case, but the decision was later overturned by the Supreme Court. Ida started documenting racist violence as a journalist and publisher while still working as an educator. She openly denounced the poor infrastructural and educational conditions in segregated Black-only schools, gaining her an infamous reputation.    

In 1892, one of Ida's friends and two other Black men were lynched by a White mob. At this time, lynching was common practice to reinforce White supremacy across the United States. As a journalist and researcher, Ida embarked on a journey around the South to expose the truth, and lies, behind lynching. She kept track of the number of Black individuals that were murdered in every location, something that no authorities had recorded to that date. In her publication "The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States," she brought attention to the lack of national justice to prevent these hate crimes. She also highlighted the lack of justification behind the lynchings. Most Black men did not have any alleged rape accusation against them, a normalized rationale for lynching at the time. They were murdered nonetheless. The underlying reason behind the lynchings, in reality, was Black economic progress and White people's fear of losing their reputation. After releasing her findings, Ida B. Wells received several death threats, which forced her to relocate many times. However, she continued to share her work and discoveries in the U.S. and abroad, and her contributions were core to the advancement of the anti-lynching movement. 

As an African-American woman, Ida B. Wells’ reporting was a courageous task that took a lot of bravery. At that point, Jim Crow segregation laws still existed, and women did not have the right to vote. Wells linked her anti-racist efforts with her suffragist activism, taking an intersectional approach to liberation. She utilized her knowledge, experience, and education to inform other Black women on how to engage in civic issues. She saw women’s suffrage as a political tool to advance justice for Black people across the United States by using the vote to elect African-Americans.

Why Care?

Ida B. Wells uncovered the racist dehumanization of African-Americans that exists in American society, and shared her discoveries with the world at great personal cost. Her findings on false rape accusations, which justified premeditated murder with no consequence from the law, highlight the reality of a racist justice system. Nowadays, police brutality is steadily growing in the United States, and there is still much to be done.  

Ida B. Wells is remembered as a pioneer of social justice for Black Americans. Her legacy continues to grow through initiatives like the  Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting and the Ida B. Wells Award of the National Association of Black Journalists.

Think Further

  1. How are the causes of women’s suffrage and anti-racism connected to current political struggles in the United States?
  2. Why do you think that Ida B. Wells was considered a radical figure? Would she be considered radical nowadays?
  3. What do you think should have been the justice system’s response to the lynchings?

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  1. Ida B. Wells. January 16, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/activist/ida-b-wells
  2. Silkey, Sarah L. Black Woman Reformer: Ida B. Wells, Lynching, & Transatlantic Activism. Athens, GA: U of Georgia, 2015. Print.
  3. Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race & Class. Black women writers series. 1st ed. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1983.