Born into slavery and orphaned at 16, Ida B. Wells spoke truth to power all her life. At 21, after she was dragged off a train by three conductors for sitting in a “white’s only” section, she sued the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. Wells was stunned by what her grandson called “a dramatic whiplash” when only a decade after the Civil War the federal government went from supposed protector of recently liberated Blacks to an accomplice in violent white supremacy. As a reporter for the Washington Evening Star, Wells condemned a nation that ignored the growth of Jim Crow and the “assassins” swelling the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan.
In March of 1892, when 75 white men murdered three Blacks, including Thomas Moss, the father of Well’s godson, she took on lynching. “No other nation, civilized or savage, burns its criminals; only under that Stars and Stripes is the human holocaust possible,” Wells cried out. She used white sources to document the lynching of 3,284 men, women and children, then made the “gruesome tribute” real by telling the names and stories of the victims.
Frederick Douglass read her 1892 report, Southern Horrors, and told Wells, “If American conscience were only half alive . . . a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven wherever your pamphlet shall be read.”
Wells was one of the first to expose the racist lie that vigilante justice protected white women from Black sexual predators. She explained, “crimes against women is the excuse, not the cause.” Lynchings spread because of “the old threadbare lie that black men rape white women.” Whites ignored centuries of the raping of enslaved Black women and attacked Wells.
She was threatened physically and called a harlot and a courtesan for speaking about rape. The New York Times called her “a slanderous and nasty-nasty-minded Mulatress.” During WWI, Wells was placed under government surveillance for being a “race agitator.” It was her persistent investigative journalism, and profound commitment to speaking truth to power, however, that exposed the ugly head of white supremacy.
“In an age when blacks were written about almost exclusively as a problem,” writes historian Philip Dray, “she had established lynching as a practice in which whites were the problem and blacks those in need of compassion and justice.”