Before Black Lives Matter, and before former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick took a knee, there was Ida B. Wells. She was a pioneering journalist with a social conscience who laid the foundations of resistance to racial injustice and violence against Black people.
“Out of their own mouths, murderers shall be condemned,” wrote Wells in A Red Record, referring to murder by lynching.
Beyond her journalism, Wells, who died in 1931, devoted her life to social justice and activism. Her special cause was to open the public’s eyes to the epidemic of lynchings as a tool of social control.
“Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen on me to do so,” Wells wrote in Southern Horrors. “The Afro-American is not a bestial race.”
Wells’ scholarly findings and arguments challenged the prevailing notion that Black criminality was evidence of Black inferiority. Wells was traumatized by the lynching of three of her close friends.
The three young Black businessmen were lynched defending their store from local Whites. Wells, who was then editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, a Black newspaper, published an article about the lynchings. This event set her off on a lifelong crusade.
Before Wells made her appearance on the scene, White journalists routinely rationalized anti-Negro violence as the only way to handle Black criminals and the only way to discourage the “Negro rapist,” wrote Khalil Gibran Muhammad in The Condemnation of Blackness.
Wells published two books on the subject, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892) and A Red Record: Tabulation Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States 1892-1894 (1894). Her books refuted the justifications Whites put forward in defense of lynching.
Wells wrote, “If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service.”
More than 120 years later, in 2018, the U.S. Senate finally passed a federal anti-lynching law.
Wells’ books analyzed the causes of lynching and compiled statistics that showed that only one-third of those victims of lynching were accused of rape. She reported the majority were killed as part of a scheme of intimidation aimed at scaring Blacks away from full participation in the economy, in education or in exercising their political rights.
Wells studied press accounts of more than 1,100 Black men, women and children who were hanged, shot or burned alive. During the 1880s and 1890s, one person was lynched every other day, and two out of three victims were Black, according to 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History, by Jeffrey C. Stewart.
The violence was usually carried out by vigilantes, and if the local authorities did not actively assist in the murder, they did nothing to stop it, Stewart’s book added.
Wells also sparked national controversy when she focused attention on the phenomenon of White men raping Black women. If the men were arrested, they were either acquitted or served minor sentences, but none of the White assailants were lynched, Wells maintained.
“Colored women have always had far more reason to complain of White men in this respect than ever White women have had of the Negroes,” wrote Wells in A Red Record.
She exposed the reality of the sexual exploitation of Black women a century before the “#metoo” movement came along. Wells traced the roots of sexual violence against the Black woman to slavery.
Wells wrote that White men should stop using the excuse that Black men were being lynched for raping women because, in fact, Black professionals and businessmen were being targeted and lynched for threatening the economic grip Whites held over the Black community.
“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,” wrote Wells. “There is therefore only one thing left to do: save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in courts, but murders us in cold blood when accused by White persons.”
Wells’ office was eventually burned down, and she was warned to not return to the city. She moved to New York and eventual settled in Chicago, where a famous public housing project was named for her. She continued her writings, documenting the rise of police killings of Blacks happening in the North.
Wells became outraged at the police killing of Alfred Lingle, 16, who allegedly broke a restaurant window. He died in a hail of 35 bullets, according to “The Condemnation of Blackness”.
She demanded that the heads of the police departments step down if their precincts were involved in controversial shootings. She called for progressive crime prevention approaches, such as getting young Black men jobs by overcoming discrimination.
Wells became a welfare advocate and probation officer for the National Association for Colored Women in her later years.
She took a firm stand against White women reformers who defended lynching as necessary, and she scorned Black male leaders who failed to speak out.
“I’d rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing,” said Wells in 1917.