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Audacity and Ida B. Wells

7/21/2018, 9:04 a.m.
Crusading journalist Ida B. Wells was born on July 16, 1862. Although she made her mark as a journalist, she ...

Julianne Malveaux

Crusading journalist Ida B. Wells was born on July 16, 1862. Although she made her mark as a journalist, she also was a social worker, advocate, feminist and organization leader.

She too often gets short shrift in history, mainly because she did not go along to get along with the men of her era, crossing swords with the likes of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington.

The same fierceness that pushed her to organize against lynching was the fierceness that propelled her to confront injustice within African-American organizations and in women’s organizations. Indeed, the historic 1913 Women’s Suffrage March was intended to either exclude black women or to segregate them at the end of the march. But Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell were among the black women who marched with the women of their state, refusing to march at the rear.

Ida B. Wells’ pen was so sharp that it got her banned from the state of Tennessee after she besmirched white women’s morality in a treatise about lynching. No matter! She kept writing and kept it moving, constantly speaking truth to power.

Now, several civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., are calling for an anti-lynching law despite several unsuccessful efforts in the past. Even though anti-lynching legislation passed the House of Representatives in 1922, Senate Democrats prevented the passage of the law by filibuster.

In any case, Ida B. Wells spent her life championing the cause of racial justice. Unfortunately, there are too few today who have her passion, her focus and her energy.   In these troubled times, investigative journalists like her are far too rare. In an era when there is so much “drive-by” reporting done by anyone with a cell phone and access to the internet, too few are willing to put in the kind of work that Ida B. Wells put in, even though we have more tools than she had. Thus we get momentary internet outrage when out-of-control Caucasians attack black people. Where is the follow-up?

Ida B. Wells had nerve, audacity. She was on fire for justice, and it showed in her writing. Her mantra is best summarized in her quote, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

In her book, “Southern Horrors,” she detailed the horrors of lynching and the fact that so many lynchings were the result of rumor, not fact. Any black man who looked sideways at the wrong white woman was subject to lynching, so much so that even in the rare case where black men were acquitted of rape, rabid crowds lynched them.

At least 3,436 people were lynched between 1889 and 1922. In just the four years between 1918 and 1921, 28 people were publicly burned to death. And while black men were the primary victims of lynching, black women, union organizers and others also were lynched. Because of Ida B. Wells, we have more detail than we might have had about these horrors.