Ida Wells, An Uncompromising Struggle for Human Dignity
She was born
in Holly Springs, Mississippi
into the world
of chattel slavery.
350,000 Union soldiers died in the Civil War
President Lincoln said they did not “die in vain”,
and the Thirteenth Amendment said,
slavery was abolished.
Black people learned to read,
they voted, and held public office.
But the federal government abandoned reconstruction,
and the Ku Klux Klan took political power.
Her mother was a cook.
Her father was a carpenter,
and they managed to support
Ida and her seven siblings.
Then the yellow fever took
the lives of her parents.
Her first struggle, at the age of sixteen,
was to keep the family together.
She taught school,
and cared for the entire family.
Eventually she earned money
as a journalist.
People who had power said that Black people were not supposed
to sit where white people sat on rail cars.
Ida was asked to vacate her “first class” seat.
She refused and several white men forced her to move.
She sued and won her case.
But there was an appeal,
and the judges ruled that Ida’s case
was not “reasonable.”
Ida was an independent minded woman
who found it difficult to make many friends.
Thomas Moss, a letter carrier was her friend.
He owned a grocery, had a wife and a child, with another on the way.
There were white people who resented Moss because he had money.
He was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit,
Seventy five racists took Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart
out of a jail and lynched them.
Ida was so incensed by the horror of this reality,
that she made the campaign
against lynching her life’s work.
Unlike many others, she would never back down.
While many understood that lynching was wrong,
many also argued that Black men
raped white women.
Therefore they argued that white women needed to be protected.
Ida Wells wrote, “The Truth About Lynching.”
she argued that, at times, some white women had
consensual relationships with Black men,
but segregationists didn’t feel this was possible.
She said that Black women were oftentimes
raped by white men who went unpunished.
Lynchings took place in order to intimidate
Black people so they would continue to work the worst jobs.
Ida learned from these lynchings that
“a Winchester rifle should
have a place of honor in every black home.”
“for protection the law refuses to give.”
She also advised Black people to take Thomas Moss’ advice,
and move out of their homes in the south,
to new homes in the west.
Thousands took this advice.
This was too much for the racists
and Ida’s life was threatened in Memphis.
She needed to abandon her business,
and did not return for thirty years.
Some people said that Ida preached hatred
against white people who lived in the South.
They isolated her in order to accommodate
to the powerful forces in the United States.
But thousands of Black men,
women and children were lynched.
They were beaten, tortured, hanged,
shot, and burned to death.
Their body parts were cut off,
collected, and even sold as souvenirs.
But the government chose
not to prosecute these known murderers.
How was she to fight against a government
that refused to prosecute murderers?
She did this by introducing her readers
to the individuals who had been lynched.
She wrote about Frazier Baker,
who was the Post Master of Lake City, South Carolina.
After his enemies burned the Post Office to the ground,
Baker used his home as a Post Office.
Hundreds of racists surrounded his home and set it on fire.
When Baker and his family came out of the home,
He and his infant daughter were murdered,
His wife and children suffered life changing injuries.
The government made an investigation.
When no one was prosecuted,
The government that claims to represent “liberty and justice for all”
became an accomplice in the murder of Frazier Baker.
No reason was given for this murder.
Ida Wells understood that Frazier Baker was murdered
because he was a Black man
who attempted to get a descent job in the United States of America.
Ida gave the facts showing how people
were victimized oftentimes for merely defending themselves
against hysterical mobs whose only concern
was to keep Black people in their place.
Anyone could read about these
lynchings in the newspapers.
Ida Wells collected these stories
and even made her own investigations.
The Twenty-fourth U.S. infantry of Black soldiers
had risked their lives in wars abroad.
In Houston, Texas those soldiers
attempted to defend their comrades from a racist mob.
Sergeant Vida Henry gave the order engage a racist mob.
After the battle, Henry committed suicide,
rather than face execution from the government
he valiantly served for thirteen years.
Ida distributed buttons which supported
the Black soldiers
who had been sentenced to death
by a court which pretended to represent justice.
“Intelligence officers” threatened to
arrest her on charges of treason.
Ida countered that it would be an
“honor” to go to prison under such circumstances.
Ida would go on to mobilize
women to support the
Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters,
who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to gain union recognition.
She wrote the pamphlets:
The Requirements of Southern Journalism,
United States Atrocities: Lynch Law,
Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His fight to the Death,
The Arkansas Race Riot,
The East St. Louis Massacre: The Greatest Outrage of the Century
Lynch Law in Georgia,
and Colored Women of Chicago.
Some of the bravest leaders for human dignity
respected her work, That list includes,
Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony,
Marcus Garvey, and WEB DuBois.
However, those who pretended to be leaders of the movement
attempted to marginalize her accomplishments,
but she will be remembered as someone who
never compromised her struggle for human dignity.