This coming Saturday, July 16, will be the 143rd birthday of Ida B. Wells. Standing four feet, six inches tall, Wells was a “fireball type” Malcolm X in a dress.
To many of us, Sister Wells was a heroine for exposing the evils of lynching black people, not only in the United States, but in England.
As an anti-lynching warrior, her messages were not only clear, they were detailed and prophetic. For millions of people, Wells was a special kind of investigative lynch emancipator and a role model for womanhood, dignity and freedom.
Wells rallied to the anti-lynching crusade in response to the brutal lynching of a close friend, Thomas Moss in 1892, who was a decent, hard-working, law-abiding Christian man and president of a corporation of prominent African-American entrepreneurs (he owned a grocery store in Memphis, Tenn.).
Ida B. Wells was one of the first African Americans to understand that lynching was a form of caste oppression and recognized that it would have to be exposed to be destroyed. She was also one of the first to articulate its graphic horror. Wells undertook this work against such great odds. For example, black giants at that time, people like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, said she was too militant. White racists promised to lynch her. Only Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony supported her “crusade.” Social activists in America then and now, have long strived to emulate her example.
This fierce-willed, fearless woman’s life began in the midst of conflict, when the town of Holly Springs, Miss. (where she was born) was captured and recaptured by union and confederate forces about 59 times during the Civil War. During reconstruction, when Wells was a girl, she saw the visible scars on her mother and grandmother from the whippings they received as slaves. These scars became a touchstone to young Wells, who then willed herself to resist and challenge the white American cruelty. An avid reader of Shakespeare and adventure novels, she drew sustenance from tales of individuals who cherish their independence and dared stand alone. She labored hard to be a “proper woman.” Some of our young ladies today should follow Well’s example.
The deaths of Moss and others forced Wells to dissect the rationale for lynching. She plunged into a wide-ranging investigation, documenting the circumstances. Wells, before her investigation, like most Americans, black and white, believed that lynching happened to accused rapists?”that is, black men raping white women. Yet her friend Moss and others brutally murdered in Memphis had not been accused of rape. Instead, they were outstanding citizens whose only crime was economic prosperity.
Wells’ research showed that rape had never been alleged in 68 percent of the lynchings and 29 percent involved nothing more than a suggestive look, while 3 percent had consensual sex with the alleged victim.
Over 800 incidents were studied. It was very difficult for Wells and her white friends from England to gather data because of resistance from officials; many had been involved in lynchings.
Regardless of the body count, it could not possibly reveal how hate and fear transformed ordinary white men and women into mindless murderers and sadistic torturers. Wells concluded that lynching was a racist device for eliminating financially independent black Americans.
Wells also expressed outrage about the silence of black leaders at the time. She voiced her frustrations in one editorial in 1893: “Where are our ‘leaders’ when the race is being burnt, shot and hanged? Holding good fat offices and saying not a word just as they were when the civil rights bill was repealed and the Blair educational and federal election bills were defeated. Black politicians tell us this great government can protect its citizens on foreign soil but is helpless when it comes to protecting them at home and hence however much the Negro is abused and outraged,” Wells wrote, “our leaders make no demands on the country to protect us, nor come forward with any practical plan for changing the condition of affairs. A few big offices and the control of a little federal patronage are not sufficient recompense for the lives lost, the blood shed and the rights denied the race.” Sound familiar today?
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was an advocate of African Americans’ civil rights, women’s rights, and economic rights. Throughout her life, she maintained a fearless devotion to justice, which often placed her in physical danger or social isolation. As a journalist and an activist, Wells made an indelible mark on the history of the United States and offered a critique of racial, sexual and economic exploitation that still rings true.