Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ida B. Wells: A Story of Activism

Ida B. Wells was an activist for black rights during and after the Reconstruction Period in America. Wells was a prominent journalist and speaker who advocated social change. Her influence is particularly relevant to the efforts to abolish lynching in the United States. Furthermore, her powerful messages encouraged other African Americans to take charge of their freedom. For these reasons, Ida B. Wells is significant to African-American studies.
            According to A Passion for Justice: The Memoirs of Ida B. Wells, Wells began her journalism career in Memphis as the editor of a newspaper during the Reconstruction Period. Around this time, the Klu Klux Klan emerged. Soon after, in 1867, the Reconstruction Period ended and African Americans faced segregation (Greaves).
            When she was twenty-two years old, Wells herself was thrown off a train after refusing to move to the smoking car on a train so as to provide a white passenger with her seat. Wells filed suit against the train company and won her case. However, the decision was later reversed. Infuriated, Wells sent articles to papers describing her experience. Through these articles, she launched herself into journalism. She earned the title: “The Princess of the Press,” and became editor and co-owner of Free Speech (Greaves).
            By 1896, legalized segregation was taking place in the South. The new legislation was instated as a result of the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court Case. In this case, Plessy, was riding on a train and refused to give up his seat because he was only one-eighth black. However, he was removed from the train. His case was lost and the separate but equal philosophy became standard in transportation, schools, and other public services.
Wells advocated a boycott of the Memphis trolley system to protest segregation. The boycott was successful and hurt the Memphis economy (Greaves). This event acted as an example for the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. In this later boycott, people with cars assisted the boycotters by giving rides to and from work. Whites as well as blacks participated in the boycott.
            Instances of racism and segregation were becoming more prominent throughout this time. Lynching was on the rise. In one of the earlier cases Ida B. Wells wrote about involved someone she knew personally. Wells was good friends with an African American grocer who opened a store nearby an established white grocery store. One night police offers approached the black owners, holding weapons. In panic, the men fired on the officers resulting in fatalities. The men were incarcerated, but before the night was over, they had been lynched (Greaves).
            Wells caught wind of the story. She wrote that in blacks should leave the area to protect themselves from similar things happening to them. Because of her fiery words, a vast migration of blacks began into the north (Greaves). Once again, the Memphis economy suffered, this time because of a decrease in their population.
            In order to work against lynching, Ida B. Wells went into an investigation. The major transgression cited as the cause for a lynching was a black man sexually assaulting a white woman. After interviewing witnesses, Wells came to the conclusion that most of these relationships were consensual (Greaves). In fact, she pointed out that the reason rape was used as an excuse for lynching was likely to be because of societies views on interracial sexual relationships. Intercourse was seen as a substantial societal taboo, and therefore, any instance of it was misrepresented as a forced relationship.
            After awhile, the south became intolerant of Wells and exiled her in an attempt to silence her pen. She moved to New York and continued her anti-lynching advocacy while writing for another paper. Eventually, she went to England to bring lynching to international attention. Because of her discussions overseas, the London Anti-Lynching Committee was started (Greaves).
            Back in the U.S. Wells became a prominent member of the suffrage movement, working alongside Susan B. Anthony. She married Ferdinand L. Barnett, an attorney and the founder of The Conservator. Wells-Barnett became a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a group that sought to further the rights and involvement of blacks in the United States (Greaves).
            Ida B. Wells’ influence on African American history is phenomenal. She was an uncompromising leader. She sought to expose the truth and force society to evaluate its motivations at the root. She refused to take the general opinion at its face value and instead investigated the true causes behind things like lynching and segregation. Because of her work, the Memphis Bus Boycott set the stage for the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. She is an inspirational historical figure. No doubt her activism helped prompt Rosa Parks in her own protests against segregation. For all of these reasons, Wells is relevant to understanding African American history.

A Passion for Justice: The Memoirs of Ida B. Wells. Dir. William Greaves. 1989.

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