Ida B. Wells was an African American who achieved national and international fame as a journalist, public speaker, and community activist. In 1892, Ida began a crusade that would prove to be her main life’s work. Through her writing and her speaking engagements, she carried out a national campaign against the unacceptable practice lynching—the burning, hanging, or shooting of a personal without a trial. Her passion and determination to inform the public put her into great danger, but she wanted to battle the lynchers and the people who didn’t care; she wouldn’t rest until she knew the truth. She uncovered the truth of lynching and impacted our history as well as journalism. Why were her writings so powerful and what truth did they uncover?
When she found out three of her friends were killed she decided that it was her job as a newspaper to inform the public of what was going on. Shortly after the murders Ida took action and wrote an article about why Memphis is not a safe place to live.
“The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are outnumbered and without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition, but the order was rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. There is therefore only one thing left that we can do: Save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” (5/ pg.44)
Did people listen to her? Yes, blacks decided to leave Memphis; whether they took a train, walked, or reveled by wagons. The blacks who stayed behind stood up for themselves by saying no to working for white families or shopping at white grocery stores. She traveled to Oklahoma and wrote letters to the Free Speech describing Oklahoma as “the land of opportunity.“ Blacks began to travel there shortly after her publication.
Ida decided to research lynching and the past affects it has in society as opposed to the current. She then began to research individual cases to learn about the people who were involved. She ended up publishing her findings even though these articles could put her in danger. Her writing was not only powerful, but it was personal and relevant to her audience.
Wells decided having a gun would be a good idea because of the content she has been writing about. She wrote:
"Eight Negroes lynched since the last issue of the Free Speech… five on the same old racket—the alarm about raping white women. The program of hanging, then shooting bullets into the lifeless bodies was carried out to the letter. Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women. If southern white men are not careful, they will overreach themselves and … a conclusion will be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.” (5/ pg.53)
What Ida wrote above is very powerful. She says that black men and white woman sometimes fall in love and what whites called rape was actually two people who loved one another.
This editorial above was published on Saturday, May 21, 1892.
Before this was published Ida left to Philadelphia to attend a convention of the American Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and then visited New York City as a guest of T. Thomas Fortune, the editor of the New York Age.
While Ida was gone the citizens of Memphis became angry. Other media began to speak of Ida badly. The Memphis Daily Commercial called her a “black scandal” and implied that she was “allowed to live as evidence as to the wonderful patience of southern whites. But we have had enough of it.” They the said that whoever wrote this should be, “tied to a stake at the intersection of Main and Madison streets, branded in the forehead with a hot iron, and [tortured] with tailor’s sheers” (5/ pg.54)
If I were Ida I would run for dear life and that’s just what she ended up doing. There was a citizens meeting where Edward Carmack, the editor of Memphis Daily Commercial created a committee to deal with Ida B. Wells and J.L. Fleming, owners of Free of Speech. The owners got away so the mob (the committee) went after an employee who left six months prior to this incident. The mob beat him and threatened him by holding a gun to his head. They had him sign a paper saying that Free Speech was a slander on white woman. The white people wanted to make sure Ida wouldn’t publish again so they destroyed her office and left a threatening note saying that anyone tried to publish the newspaper again death would occur.
This whole time Ida had no idea what was going on back home. She ended up having to stay in New York because if she went back she would have been a dead woman.
T. Thomas Fortune invited Ida to write a column a week and to become one-fourth owner of the New York Age to help boost his newspaper. Ida now left her live in the south and began fresh in the north.
Ida was truly a saint who became one of the world’s first investigative reporters. She was a heroine for exposing the truth about lynching. She continued to write and wrote one of the most detailed articles about lynching of all time. This was published on the front page of the New York Age on June 25, 1892 called “Exiled.”
A white Memphis newspaper later responds to this article by saying that she still prints scandalous articles. The public had a different opinion, most were grateful for her research. Fredrick Douglass went to Ida and told her how her article was eye opening to him.
Douglass inspired Ida to write a pamphlet, expanding on materials covered in her articles called Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.
In conclusion, Ida. B Wells stood up for what she believed in. She is truly a powerful woman. She completed her mission and informed the public what was going on. I thought it was neat that lynching was almost gone by the time she died in March 1931. She truly made an impact in history.
(1) McMurry, Linda. To Keep The Waters Troubled: The Life of Ida B. Wells. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.
(2) Royster, Jones Jacqueline. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti- Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900. New York: Bedford Books, 1997. Print.
(3) Schechter, Patricia. Ida B. Wells Barnett and American Reform, 1880-1930: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Print.
(4) Giddings, Paula. Ida: A Sword Among Lions. New York:HarperCollins, 2008. Print.
(5) Fradin, Brindell Dennis, and Judith Bloom Fradin. Ida B. Wells: Mother of the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Clarion Books, 2000. Print.
(6) Black, Car Patti. “Ida B. Wells: A Courageous Voice for Civil Rights,” Mississippi History, 2001. Web. 28 Feb. 2012