An 1893 address by African American activist and writer Ida B. Wells. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Born to enslaved parents in Civil War ravaged Mississippi, Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) enjoyed a long, distinguished career as a prominent -- and often controversial -- civil rights and women’s rights activist. She first became a public figure at the age of twenty-two, when she lead a protest against the segregated railroad system in Memphis, Tennessee. When ordered to go and sit in the train’s designated “Jim Crow” car by a white conductor, Wells refused, resulting in her violent ejection from the train. (But not, Wells would later write proudly, before she had thoroughly, and she hoped painfully, bitten the offending conductor’s hand.) Although the lawsuit which Wells brought against the railroad ended in failure, the incident nonetheless served as the beginning of her career as a powerful advocate for racial and gender equality in the United States. Over the course of her long life, Wells served as a co-founder of the NAACP, an impassioned suffragist, and a much-acclaimed journalist and author. Among her many writings is her autobiography, Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972). The most recent of the many excellent biographical studies of Wells’s life and work is Paula Giddings’ Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching (New York: Amistad, 2008).
Wells is most famous for her work as a pioneering and tireless antilynching advocate. Her career as an antilynching activist began in earnest in 1892, when three of her male friends were lynched in Memphis. (These victims—Cal McDowell, Thomas Moss, and Will Stewart—were only three of the 161 African-Americans who would be lynched in the United States in 1892 alone.) Wells, who was in the North at the time of the murders, wrote scathing articles about the tragedy for the Memphis Free Speech, the anti-segregation newspaper for which she served as a co-editor. In these writings, Wells fiercely decried the notion that African-American men were lynched because of their supposed propensity for raping white women. Wells knew of few sexual connections between black men and white women, she affirmed, and the majority of those which she had heard of had been sought out and initiated by white women themselves. So enraged were local whites about Wells’s articles that they destroyed the Free Press’ office, and Wells’s friends and relatives warned her not return to the South, for fear that she, too, would be lynched.
Having become a “journalist in exile,” Wells published numerous works about lynching, including Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892) and A Red Record (1895), in which she used meticulous research and extensive statistics to reveal the reality of, and explode the myths surrounding, lynching. She also embarked on an ambitious and exhausting speaking tour, in which she traveled throughout the United States and the United Kingdom raising public awareness about the horrors of lynching. Among her many speeches was her address “Lynch Law In All Its Phases,” delivered at the Baptist Tremont Temple in Boston on February 13, 1893. In this speech, Wells made it clear to her audience that they had a solemn responsibility to educate themselves about the horrors of lynching, and to inform their friends, families, and communities about the severity of the crisis. “The public sentiment of the country,” Wells insisted to the crowd, “by its silence in press, pulpit and in public meetings has encouraged this state of affairs and public sentiment is stronger than the law” (345). It would not be until the “demand goes up from fearless and persistent reformers from press and pulpit, from industrial and moral associations… from Maine to Texas and from ocean to ocean,” Wells argued passionately, that lynching could be brought to an end. Ordinary Americans could thus play a vital part in bringing about the end of lynching, by refusing to allow the press to either remain silent on the issue, or to perpetuate unjust lies about the moral justness of lynchings.
Throughout her speech, Wells drew many explicit parallels between the current state of race relations in the United States and the antebellum era, in which African-American and white abolitionists had fought so tirelessly against the national evil of slavery. A similar kind of dedication and commitment was required of contemporary American activists, Wells insisted, because “[t]he very same forces are at work now as then” (344). While abolitionists had hoped that the end of slavery would also mean the end of racial inequality in America, Wells noted that the virulent racist violence which had plagued the country in the years before the Civil War continued unabated; indeed that, it seemed to have actually increased since the antebellum era. Leaders comparable to the great abolitionists “[William Lloyd] Garrison, [Frederick] Douglass, [Charles] Sumner, [John Greenleaf] Whittier, and [Wendell] Phillips” would be needed, Wells maintained, to “ rouse this nation” (347). Although all of the abolitionists whose names Wells here invoked were male (and all but one of them was white), Wells nonetheless implicitly suggested that both she, and her female and male audience members, had the potential to follow in these “great men’s” footsteps, and continue the struggle which antislavery activists had begun so many decades before.
In “Lynch Law In All Its Phases,” Wells also drew upon rhetoric and arguments similar to those used by abolitionists such as Douglass and Garrison in their writings and oratory during the antebellum era. Much like antebellum abolitionists, Wells provided her audience with extensive and carefully-documented facts, reciting damning statistics about the utter lack of any evidence that lynched men and women had committed, or even been accused of, any crime prior to their murders. Like abolitionists, Wells described the full horror of the violence perpetrated against African-Americans within American society in excruciating detail, refusing to spare her audience the “horrible details” (342). And, like antislavery activists throughout the antebellum era, Wells deliberately linked the cause of racial justice with the right to free speech, invoking the abolitionist martyr Elijah P. Lovejoy, who had been murdered in 1837 for his refusal to cease publishing his antislavery newspaper, and emphasizing the fact that her own life was currently in danger, simply because she had dared to publish the truth about lynching. For invoking her right to free speech, Wells told her audience, “I was to be dumped into the river and beaten, if not killed… I was to be hanged in front of the court house and my face bled” (340). And, perhaps most powerfully, Wells, like the generations of abolitionists who had come before her, insisted to her audience that America’s brutal and unjust treatment of African-Americans made a mockery of its claim to be a “Christian nation, the flower of nineteenth-century civilization” (344). Throughout “Lynch Law In All Its Phases,” Wells linked the antilynching fight to the antebellum struggle for abolition, and insisted that if the fair and equal world of which abolitionists had dreamed was ever to be a reality, the terrible crime of lynching needed to be brought to an absolute and permanent end.
-Holly M. Kent