It’s MLK Day. No doubt our feeds are flooded with MLK quotes and tributes. As they should be.
But Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s didn’t arise out of nothing. It wasn’t merely a reaction to the realities of segregation and racism in those decades. What we commonly refer to as the Civil Rights movement is actually a significant but small part of the long history of the African American fight for equality and justice.
And so I want to talk today about one of my Civil Rights heroes: Ida B. Wells.
Wells’s parents were former slaves who fought fearlessly to take hold of the freedom and autonomy Reconstruction Mississippi desperately tried to deny them after the Civil War. Wells inherited her parents’ indomitable spirit — a fierceness she would need throughout her remarkable life.
When Wells was 16 years old, she lost both of her parents and became the warden of her younger siblings. Wells would soon find how nearly impossible it would be for her, an unmarried young woman, to live independently regardless of her capability to do so.
Having visited the family doctor to collect the cash her father had left with him for just such a necessity, the town could only conclude Wells had procured cash from this white man in exchange for sex. As a young black woman, Ida was immediately subjected to some of the worst racist assumptions about black women — stereotypes that persist to this day.
Such gossip would follow Wells for a the large majority of her life. An attractive and intelligent young woman, Wells enjoyed dating and dated a lot. But she was loath to settle down, refusing to sacrifice her independence and ambition for the socially accepted norms of marriage. And so she shouldered the compounded burdens of racism and sexism.
Wells channeled her frustration into her ambitions. Her unmitigated passion and drive led her to lead the fight against Jim Crow rail cars that forced black women and men to ride in the second-class cars even when they’d paid for first-class tickets.
Wells would also become the first black woman in American history to own and edit a newspaper, the Free Speech. Her position at the paper empowered her to stand up against and silence the sexist slander both by having the freedom to write whatever she liked and by establishing herself securely within the Memphis black middle-class.
A pioneer of investigative journalism, Wells published a blistering editorial on the American lynching holocaust. Wells uncloaked the myths white southerners invented to defend the barbaric practice of lynching. And as you can imagine, they where not happy about it.
Soon after its publication, Wells’s newspaper press was burned to the ground by the white men of Memphis. Wells was smart enough to send the editorial to press the night before leaving on a trip to Pennsylvania. But eventually, she was forced to remain in exile in the North and start her life all over once again.
Wells would republish and expand her editorial in a groundbreaking report titled Southern Horrors and go on to establish a number of civil rights organizations — only to be pushed out of almost all of them for being too forward thinking and too ahead of her time.
Even in the North, Wells’s unmitigated determination to tell the truth freely, caused her to be consistently snubbed by both “liberal-minded” white reformers and conservative black leaders. Instead, she was, as biographer Mia Bay aptly puts it: “written out of the black protest tradition by a new generation of reformers who appropriated her ideas while rejecting her leadership.”
Today, however, Ida B Wells is widely, and finally, celebrated and honored. Thanks to the efforts of black women scholars like Bay, Wells’s legacy has been recovered, and I was able to discover my favorite historical American hero.
- “9 Things You Must Know About Ida B. Wells,” Lolly Bowean. 2018.
- To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B Wells, Mia Bay. 2009.
- Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, Ida B. Wells. 1892.
- Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. 1970.