Wells-Barnett, Ida B. 1862–1931
Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, a journalist, suffragist, and civil rights activist, was best known for launching the nation's first anti-lynching campaign in 1892. Born on July 16, 1862, in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells began her activist career in 1883 when she sued the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railway in Memphis, after being refused a first-class seat in a ladies' car. Although Wells ultimately lost the case in 1887, she was the first black plaintiff to challenge a separate coach case before a state supreme court after the US Supreme Court invalidated the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
On March 9, 1892, the lynching of three black men in Memphis, including Thomas Moss—a close friend of Wells and the president of a co-op grocery that successfully competed with a white-owned store—was the catalyst for Wells's life-long career as an anti-lynching activist. Her efforts began with a boycott of the city's streetcars and calls for blacks to leave Memphis for new territories then opening up for settlement in Oklahoma. Whereas she was not the first to protest lynchings, conservatively estimated to number nearly five thousand between 1880 and 1930, Wells was the first to grasp its full significance in a period that saw the emergence of the New South and the anxieties that accompanied rapid industrial growth and urbanization. This period witnessed challenges to traditional gender roles, the assertiveness and economic success of the post-slavery generation of African-Americans, and the popular dissemination of “scientific” texts that posited that peoples of African descent were biologically predetermined to regress into primitivism and hypersexual behavior. Allegations that black men were raping white women allowed lynchings to be carried out with impunity. Wells, using the methods of investigative journalism, statistics on lynching published annually by the Chicago Tribune, and, on occasion, detective agencies, provided evidence that the charge of rape was primarily used as a pretext to lynch either defiant blacks or those, such as Thomas Moss, who challenged the economic status quo.
The most provocative aspect of Wells's campaign, however, was her insistence that many of the accusations of rape were actually consensual sexual relationships between black men and white women. After she published an editorial on May 21, 1892, reflecting this view in the Memphis Free Speech—a militant weekly she co-owned—white Memphians destroyed her newspaper and forced Wells into exile. From New York, she continued to write anti-lynching editorials for the New York Age, published by T. Thomas Fortune. These became the basis for her 1892 pamphlet, Southern Horrors, which was the first comprehensive analysis of lynching. It Page 266 | Top of Articledocumented the fact that only about a third of black victims were actually accused of rape, much less guilty of it.
An analog to Wells's findings was the continued sexual coercion of black women by white men of all social strata. In sum, her conclusions critiqued the congealing late-nineteenth-century ideology of white supremacy by challenging the myth of (sexually) pure white womanhood, the hypersexuality of black women and men, the integrity of the “best white men,” and the pseudoscience of social Darwinism, which was used to confirm the superiority of white civilization.
Wells's anti-lynching discourse also challenged the conservative ideology of elite African-American leaders who believed that racial violence was spurred by lower-class whites against criminally prone blacks. These leaders believed that racism would cease with evidence of increasing black economic and social progress, rather than militant protest. Southern Horrors, on the other hand, called for armed self-defense, civil disobedience, and an insurgent black laboring class. Wells's activist strategy also included appeals to progressives, both black and white, to mobilize against lynching and pass a federal anti-lynching law.
In 1893 and 1894, Wells took her campaign to the British Isles, where she was able to rally the support of prominent journalists and denominational church leaders, as well as members of Parliament, anti-imperialist organizations, and feminist groups. A number of these individuals formed the London Anti-Lynching Society, which was headed by John Douglas Sutherland Campbell, the Duke of Argyll. Their criticism of lynching practices was instrumental in making racial violence an issue in the United States that could no longer be ignored.
When Wells returned to America, she attempted to foment an interracial, nationwide movement against lynching. Anti-lynching committees were formed in numerous cities, and Wells received important endorsements from numerous organizations and religious bodies. But Wells, a polarizing figure whose views were too radical for many reformers, both white and black, failed to get the economic support to sustain an independent movement. Nevertheless, after 1892 the number of lynchings never again reached the high of 241 that was recorded that year, and her campaign can be credited for the passage of anti-lynching laws in southern states, including Georgia, Texas and South Carolina, between 1893 and 1897. Wells's activism was also a catalyst for the formation of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896: the first secular, nationwide organization of African-American women. Its motto, “lifting as we climb,” informed its activities, which included community betterment, suffrage, and anti-lynching work.
In 1895, Wells married Ferdinand L. Barnett, a like-minded militant lawyer in Chicago, and four children were born to the couple between 1896 and 1904. In a chapter of her autobiography, Crusade for Justice, Wells-Barnett wrote of her “divided duty” between motherhood and activism, but she continued to campaign against racial violence and to establish important institutions and organizations to empower black men and women, both in Illinois and nationally. Wells-Barnett founded the Ida B. Wells Club, the first women's club in Chicago to become a part of the NACW; the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first black women's suffrage club in Chicago; and the Negro Fellowship League, a settlement house. In 1909 she was among the “founding forty” of the organization that later became known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
However, Wells-Barnett's militant strategies were more in tune with the nationalism of Marcus Garvey and the militancy of the Boston editor Monroe Trotter—both of whom she allied with—than with the NAACP. Nevertheless, she provided the model for the organization's own belated campaign against lynching and it was the NAACP's public lobbying effort to pass a federal anti-lynching law in 1922 that established it as the premiere civil rights organization in the country. During the mid-1920s, Wells-Barnett was instrumental in the successful campaign to mobilize black support in Chicago to establish a branch of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids in the city. In 1930, a year before her death, Wells-Barnett became the first black woman to run for an Illinois state senate seat. Both in theory and practice, Wells-Barnett's campaign against lynching and activism for black empowerment were harbingers for the late twentieth-century movements against racism and sexism. She died in Chicago on March 25, 1931, at the age of sixty-eight.
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Paula J. Giddings (2008)
Smith College, MA