“Let me give thanks for your faithful paper on the lynch abomination,” Frederick Douglass wrote to Ida B. Wells, introducing her pamphlet on lynching, ‘A Red Record.’ “Brave woman! you have done your people and mine a service which can neither be weighed nor measured,” he went on.
Once one apprehends the extent of the prophetic journalism and anti-lynching activism of Ida B. Wells, it becomes difficult to see her as anything but one of the greatest Americans ever, at the pinnacle of the category of “unsung heroines.” Wells, who was born a slave and died in a new century as a lauded activist, editor, speaker, and journalist, is deserving of far more public memorializing than so many of the mediocre leaders whose busts decorate our marble halls.
For many, Wells is the patron saint of muckraking journalism and anti-racist activism. She didn’t achieve this joint renown by trying to maintain a facade of “objectivity” or bogus neutrality. Instead, Wells saw something terribly, terribly wrong and tried to fix it, using statistics, facts, and research to aid argumentative activism. She came home one day to find that a good friend had been killed by a lynch mob. From then on, her intellect frequently turned itself in one direction and one direction only: the scourge of lynching.
Yet, as Douglas marveled, “You have dealt with the facts with cool, painstaking fidelity, and left those naked and uncontradicted facts to speak for themselves.”
Today, the situation in Ferguson is on edge. To follow it, we look at live streams and tweets from the scene. Hundreds of devoted bloggers and concerned citizens on social media try to piece together the true stories, beyond the usual patriarchal and white-supremacist narratives that both the state and the mainstream media adopt unthinkingly (“property destruction” and so on). At this moment, when state-sanctioned violence against young men of color is again a major subject of contention and discussion — and when the knowledgeable look to sources other than corporate media to take the lead — it’s fitting that a new volume of Wells’ work is due to hit shelves. She’s the godmother of today’s online journalism culture.
The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader (on sale tomorrow via Penguin Classics) collects comprehensive journalism, interviews, speeches, letters to the editor, and more from Wells, edited and with an introduction by Wells’ biographer Mia Bay.
Reading her work is a study in thoroughness; Wells would do things like document every lynching in a year, breaking them down by cause and region. Through her research, she was able to demonstrate persuasively that many of these murders had nothing to do with rape, and many were perpetrated against the innocent, the insane, or the merely insolent.
Some of Wells’ methods of work recall today’s “digital media activists.” She circulated “pamphlets” of her own speeches about lynching. Later, when she couldn’t travel because she had a family (and changed her name to the very modern, hyphenated Wells-Barnett), she would, as Mia Bay’s introduction to the new volume makes clear, close-read the reportage of white newspapers to make her case. These papers “reported the deaths of [lynch victims] Hose and the other black men in enthusiastic, almost pornographic detail, making Wells-Barnett’s case against mob violence for her.”
Wells even hired detectives to go on fact-finding missions for her when she couldn’t travel herself, either because of her family obligations or because of the many death threats that prevented her return to areas of the Deep South.
The sexual politics of lynching were verboten (rape is bad, but so is lynching was the party line). Yet Wells would often straight-up tell the world that the phenomenon arose as a result of the anxieties of white men surrounding white women’s sexual interest in black men. She was able to discuss the intersecting politics of race and gender in a frank way that few others were bold enough to use.
Take this paragraph from an interview she did in Britain (she frequently traveled abroad to raise interest in the anti-lynching cause):
Libertinism apart, white men constantly express an open preference for the society of black women. But it is a sacred convention that white women can never feel passion of any sort, high or low, for a black man. Unfortunately, facts don’t always square with the convention; and then, if the guilty pair are found out, the thing is christened an outrage at once, and the woman is practically forced to join in hounding down the partner of her shame. Sometimes she rebels, but oftener the overwhelming force of white prejudice is too much for her, and she must go through with the ghastly mockery. ‘What!’ cried out one poor negro at the stake, as the woman applied the torch, egged on by a furious mob, headed by her relatives, ‘have you the heart to do that, when we have been sweethearting so long?’”
It was this specific argument she made — lynching is punishment for the bare fact of white women’s sexual desire for black men — that brought her under constant threat of lynching herself.
She remained, naturally, unrelenting, dry, and fearless in her writing. “It may be remarked here in passing that this instance of the moral degradation of the people of Mississippi did not excite any interest in the public at large,” she wrote of one horrible lynching in which the victims were innocent. “American Christianity heard of this awful affair and read of its details and neither press nor pulpit gave the matter more than a passing comment.”
Of course, Wells’ writing isn’t just breathtaking because it reveals her courage, clarity, and prescient, innovative media-making techniques. Her collected work elucidates the mechanisms of white supremacy that held its roots in American soil even after the Civil War ended, and ascended again during the collapse of reconstruction.
Looking over Wells’ comprehensive accounts of lynchings in The Light of Truth is riveting, then deeply upsetting, then nauseating, then almost unbearable because of the way the stories repeat themselves and because of the gruesome nature of the violence which she lays bare. Some individual stories are particularly upsetting. There’s one instance where the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, actually took the step of calling forth military support for an accused man under threat of lynching. However, a mob shot at the soldiers and overpowered them, and went on with their intended extra-judicial murders. Then there’s a particularly gruesome story about a mentally deficient man tortured and burned at the stake in Texas in front of a rabid crowd of onlookers that reads almost exactly like a story about witches or heretics being burned in the middle ages. Yet this was no town square in medieval Europe — it was barely a century ago, on our own soil. And its legacy persists. As Wells’ British interviewer said in 1894, when faced with her accounts: “The middle ages are outdone. The inquisition fades into a merely medium horror.”
So, no, we cannot discuss any instance of state-sanctioned violence against black men and women, whether it’s a controversy like Ferguson, or capital punishment’s disproportionate targeting of men of color, or the prison system, or the war on drugs, or stop and frisk, without understanding the legacy of lynching (which is itself an outgrowth of the legacy of slavery). Wells was the most comprehensive chronicler of that common practice for which few words exist that provide sufficient condemnation.
For that reason, and for Wells’ immense courage, clear pen, and understanding of the nature of journalistic advocacy, this new volume ought to become required reading for anyone interested in American history or current affairs.