In which we see the promise, and price, of activism.
OK, kids, I need your help again.
—Again, Mr. K? You know we’re going to have to start charging for our services.
Fair enough, Emily. I’ll tell you what: the more help you give me, the higher your grade.
—Hmmm. I guess so. As long as that means I get the highest grade, since I’m the most helpful person in your life.
—And the most modest.
—Shut up, Adam.
—Huh. I was about to say exactly the same thing.
—You were going to tell yourself to shut up?
—Great minds think alike. I think you should both shut up.
—Brilliant, Chris! I think you should get a higher grade now.
—Chris never talks.
—More isn’t better, Em.
Now, now, kids. Let’s focus on the matter at hand. And that matter is personal. It’s about my friend Ida Wells.
—You want personal advice?
—Jeez, Jonah, you really do fall for it every time.
Ida was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862. Her parents died when she was your age in an epidemic that swept the region, and she convinced friends and family that she could raise her five younger siblings on her own. She started college around this time, but was kicked out for reasons that remain obscure (as we’ll see, though, Ida did have a bit of a temper). Despite the press of commitments she managed to begin a journalism career, albeit for little pay, for a series of newspapers in the region.
Here’s a story that give you a sense of Ida’s personality. In 1883, she boarded a train, for which she paid for a first-class ticket. By this point, racial segregation and Jim Crow laws had replaced slavery as the primary means of controlling the lives of black people, though it lacked the full legitimation that the notorious Supreme Court Case Plessy v. Ferguson would give segregation thirteen years later.
—What’s Plessy v. Ferguson?
—It was in last night’s homework.
Right. So Ida is sitting on this train, and the conductor orders her to move to the second-class car, presumably because she’s a Negro. Ida, who, as I said, paid for a first-class ticket, ignores him. The conductor moves on to collect other tickets. But he returns to move her luggage and umbrella, telling her that he’ll treat her as a lady if she’ll act like one. Ida replies that the best way to treat her like a lady is to leave her alone. At this point, the conductor begins to drag Ida out of the train. And at which point she does the distinctly unladylike thing of biting him.
—She bit him?
The conductor goes to get help with ejecting her, to the cheering of the white passengers. But since the train has come to a stop at the station, Ida leaves by her own recognizance.
This was not the end of the matter as far as she was concerned, however. She sued the train company for violating her rights. And she won. But the train company pressed the case, and the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the decision, requiring her to pay court costs. Ida would often lose battles she fought. But that never stopped her. It never stopped hurting, though, either. Her insistence on speaking truth to power cost her friends, and it cost her jobs. But she maintained a stubborn insistence on her own integrity.
Here’s what’s important though: Ida didn’t just insist on her own integrity. She also spoke out even more ardently about crimes perpetrated on others. And no such crime engaged her more passionately that the epidemic of lynching that spread throughout the South in the 1880s and 90s.
—I’ve heard of lynching, but I’m not entirely sure what it is. Can you explain?
Kids? How about you tell Yin?
—It’s when black people get murdered.
—I think a lot of time it’s by hanging.
You’re all correct. There was a real epidemic of lynchings in the South in the closing decades of the 19th century. Hundreds of them. Those that were reported, that is. And those that were reported had significant ripple effects as a warning to black people who, in the perception of racists, got out of line—or, to put it in perhaps more apt terms, didn’t know their “place.” That was a key term of the time: place was a matter of (segregated) geography, and also a matter of social rank.
Many people were appalled by lynchings, but Ida took them very hard. “Oh my God! Can such a thing be and there be no justice for it?” she wrote in her diary in 1892 after a learning a black woman accused of poisoning a white one had been lynched and her bullet-riddled body had been put on display. “It may be unwise to express myself so strongly, but I cannot help it.”
By this point, our friend Ida was working as a journalist in Memphis, Tennessee, just across the Mississippi River from where she had grown up. She had made a bit of a life for herself, with many friends (though her own marriage, to a man named Ferdinand Barnett, at which point she became Ida Wells-Barnett, was still a few years away). Three of her male black friends had started a grocery store in town that competed with a white one. In the aftermath of an argument between a group of white and black boys playing marbles, tensions escalated. They culminated when the three black men, who had been jailed for arming themselves to defend their store, were removed from their cells and lynched. In the days that followed, an anonymous editorial appeared in a Memphis newspaper. Let me read you a few sentences:
Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that Negro men rape white women. If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will then be reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.
Can any of you tell me what this means?
—It’s saying that Negro men don’t really rape white women.
Yes, that is one thing the article is saying, Kylie. What else?
—That white men are overreacting.
Yes again. Let me ask you this. Do you think that there were white women who had sex with black men?
—Not often, but yeah.
And when that did happen, Adam, and white women were caught, what might they have said?
—That they were getting raped.
That’s correct; they sometimes did. Why might they say that even if it wasn’t true?
—Because they didn’t want to get in trouble.
Right. But why might have some women done it in the first place?
—Because they wanted to.
Right. Because they wanted to. Maybe because they preferred black men to white ones.
—Whoa. That’s a pretty provocative thing to say in a newspaper.
It sure is, Yin. What do you think the reaction was?
There sure was. Angry mobs descended on the paper’s office, which was utterly destroyed. A writer at a rival newspaper suggested that he would personally teach the writer of these words by performing a surgical operation with him with a pair of tailor’s scissors.
—He would cut that writer’s balls off.
That’s the idea, Jonah. But of course this person couldn’t do that. Because the writer of this piece didn’t have any: “He” was our friend Ida. She had fled the scene, never to return.
—That’s quite a story.
And in an important sense, it was just the beginning, Yin. In the years that followed, our friend Ida became an internationally famous anti-lynching activist. She wrote countless articles and pamphlets, and went on the lecture circuit. (They call black people savages? Look what white people are doing!) Her impact isn’t anything we can prove, but the number of lynchings in the United States did decline in the latter part of the 1890s, and Ida may be at least part of the reason for that. I myself consider her efforts heroic.
—So if that’s the case, why do you need our “help” with your friend Ida, Mr. K.?
Ah, well, I’m glad you asked, Em. As you may know, a life of activism can be difficult, particularly if you happen to be a black woman. And Ida didn’t just fight with violent racists, she also called out those who might have been (and in some cases actually were) her allies. Like the woman’s rights activist Emma Willard. Willard had been an abolitionist before the war, and Wells, like Willard, believed in women’s suffrage. But Willard, who was touring England speaking against alcoholism at the same time Wells was also there on a speaking tour, said nothing about lynching—which Wells noted. Willard had said that African Americans “reproduce like locusts,” which was reported in the press. Embarrassed by the controversy, Willard tried to muzzle Wells, to no avail.
Well also experienced struggles with her black allies. She was close with aging Frederick Douglass, who mentored her. But after Douglass died in 1895, Well found herself with fewer and fewer connections in the elite black community. In particular, W.E.B. DuBois, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, froze her out. After 1900, a new generation of black activists found her a little too loud, a little too coarse, not quite savvy enough. And that made her very sad.
Which is where you come in. I’m trying to figure out how to advise my dear friend Ida. Do you think I should pull her aside and tell her to tone it down? Should I say, “Ida, Ida, Ida! You catch more flies with honey than vinegar!” Do you think that would help?
Yeah, but would she listen to me, Sadie?
—She might if she’s feeling discouraged.
Yeah, but would she take my advice?
—I think she would if she felt you really cared about her. People don’t like to be talked at. But I think if you made clear that you really respect her and are worried about her, she would take you seriously.
—Well, maybe. But people are kind of who they are. And you know, Ida is pretty cool. I mean, she’s doing a lot of good in the world.
So your feeling, Em, is that I should let Ida be Ida.
—Pretty much. I mean, it works.
But is it working for her? It’s wearing her down.
—Yeah, but look how many people are benefitting.
—That sounds a little harsh, Em. It’s like you’re using her up. Remember, she’s Mr. K’s friend, Ida.
—Maybe, Kylie. But how happy do you think she’s going to be sitting on the sidelines? For all we know, shutting up might be worse for her.
—That’s true. You said she got married, Mr. K. Did she have kids?
—Well, maybe she should focus on her family. That’s important, too.
—She might not have any choice. I mean, she’s getting shut out.
—But she might not get shut out if she changed her way of doing things.
—Yeah, but it might not make any difference. Times change. People get pushed aside. That might not really be her fault. It’s just kind of the way history works.
Does that mean you agree with Kylie, Adam?
—Yeah. You have to have more than one ball in the air in life. If things are going bad in one way, maybe they’re going better in another.
—So what ended up happening to her, Mr. K.?
Well, Sadie, one way of answering that is that she sank into obscurity. She kept active in African American affairs, especially on a local level (her family settled in Chicago). When she died in 1931, her husband made her funeral low-key. But the city did name a housing project after her in 1940, and thirty years later her daughter managed to get her autobiography published. You might say that marked the beginning of her comeback; by the 1980s, she was being celebrated as path-breaking feminist and something of an academic darling. These were the years I discovered her. And now I’m telling you. So now you know my friend Ida.
—Yeah. I think I’m going to make her my friend, too.
NEXT: The winds of industrial capitalism