When we think of people documenting the horrors of racism and police oppression how many of us think of Ida B. Wells?
Ida Bell Wells was an investigative journalist, educator and early leader in the civil right movement.
She was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862. After the end of the civil War, she and her parents where finally freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. However her parents died when she was only 16, leaving her with no choice but to move in with her Grandmother and work to support the remainder of her family. Thanks to her schooling during her early teens at Rust College, she acquired a job as an elementary teacher. But this situation changed when her Grandmother died. She then moved in with an aunt who lived in Memphis, Tennessee. Once there she managed to get a job as teacher in Woodstock, Tenn. In between school sessions she continued her education by attending Fisk College.
Her higher education, combined with hardships of life, along with the institutionalized racism she experienced living in the South, formed her strong, progressive spirit for justice.
Seventy one years before Rosa Parks got on a bus,
there was Ida B. Wells.
A good example of that spirit happened in 1884 while she was riding on the the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railway. Ida was told by a conductor to give up her first class seat to a white woman. She refused but was dragged from her seat and moved to a segregated railcar.
Wells was so infuriated over this treatment she was inspired to write a news article about it which was published in an African American church weekly. The article was so popular it gained her enough notoriety to write other articles about racism and Jim Crow laws for other black-owned newspapers. As she established her acclaim in writing, she became part owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight in 1889. This gave her even more of a powerful voice against local racism.
She began a forty year long crusade against lynching in 1892 after three friends died at the hands of racists. Three black businessmen who were protecting an African American boy from getting beaten by a white man were unjustly arrested and jailed. While they were in jail a mob of hooded white men broke into the jail, grabbed the three men, then brought them to a local rail yard where they were shot.
Wells investigated this lynching and wrote a damning editorial which had one particularly inciteful line that confronted the local racial slurs “that old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern men are not careful, a conclusion might be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”
Unfortunately this editorial made her a target of hate. Her newspaper office was burned to the ground and she was driven out of Memphis.
But Wells remained undaunted and published a lengthy pamphlet titled, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases” then followed up with an even longer, more detailed one titled, “The Red Record.” Both exposed the heinous practices of lynching, poll taxes, literacy tests and other means used to disenfranchise African Americans in the South and keep white racist rule in place.
She continued for the rest of her life to be a firebrand and a dynamic voice against racism. She was also active in the Women rights and Suffrage movement.
Ida B wells was force to be reckoned with whose words and actions should never be forgotten.
I wonder what she would have thought of where we are now as a nation? A place where each citizen who owns a cellphone or camera can now instantaneously document, and then widely circulate via social media, every injustice being done to our fellow humans.
I would think that she’d be alternately dismayed that lynchings and racism still persist, while also pleased that we can all rise together to confront and perhaps finally put an end to these horrors.
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