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Home > Publications > Quill > IDA B. WELLS


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Friday, January 30, 2009
IDA B. WELLS

Fired Words in the Battle for Equality

MICHELLE DUSTER

Ida B. Wells, born three years before slavery ended in 1865, defied every convention there was for African-American women at the time.

And she did it in the name of social justice.

Through her words, she shined light on the horrific treatment of ex-slaves. They were beaten, killed, maimed or threatened when they showed signs of wanting more than servitude, drudgery and exploitation out of life. She exposed the real horrors of lynching.

Print was her weapon. Words were her ammunition.

Wells blazed a trail for all journalists, using words as a means to fight a battle against an entire social structure of a country. She encouraged thousands of people to act defiantly. Her words, which created graphic description of atrocities against African-Americans, persuaded people to help change this nation into what it had the potential to be.

When Wells came of age, more than 70 percent of the black pop-ulation was illiterate. Nonetheless, she entered the male-dominated field of journalism when most women her age were getting married and having children.

She became co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper while many of her fellow African-Americans were working as manual laborers or domestics. And in time, she became a national and international figure when most people, regardless of color or gender, were simply trying to make ends meet.

Through her stories, Wells influenced thousands of disenfranchised people to pack up their belongings and move from Memphis to Oklahoma in order to enjoy a more equitable life.

They left behind family and friends. They left a place where justice was nothing but a useless word.

She convinced thousands to boycott white-owned businesses, including a transportation system that humiliated and ostracized them.

The result: destruction of her printing press and a bounty on her head.

Threats to her life propelled her to purchase a pistol and gave her the resolution to take at least one person with her if it was her time to meet her maker.

Exiled from an entire section of the United States, Wells made a new life for herself in the northern part of the country and stepped up her writing efforts.

Onward she pressed, telling of the atrocities that African-Americans were suffering at the hands of mobs, sometimes made up of “lawmakers.”

When it was obvious that little to no protection was possible from local governments in the United States, Wells used her pen to provide correct information to those who were reading accounts of the skewed reality — and sometimes blatant lies — about lynchings across the country.

She meticulously collected facts about the cold-blooded murders of community leaders, business people, petty thieves, innocent bystanders and random victims. She let an entire nation know the brutal realities of the domestic terrorism that was taking place.

As she continued writing newspaper articles and pamphlets, then backing it up with speeches, her audience and her determination to end the lawlessness grew.

The breadth of her influence increased. She not only became a national figure but took the opportunity to travel to England and spread the word about what was going on in the United States, which prided itself on the illusion of treating all men as if they were created equal.

The United States boasted of being a Christian country, yet it didn’t allow black Christians in the South to sit in the same section of the church as white church-goers. This Christian-based country turned black men away from the Young Men’s Christian Association. In this “free” country, African-Americans were not allowed to vote, had inferior educational opportunities and were relegated to the worst conditions on every front. This is the country that Wells knew, and she felt that pressure from the outside could make an impact.

Wells refused to be silent about the injustices that were raging throughout the South and some parts of the North. They embarrassed, horrified and transformed an entire nation.

Her dogged determination to be heard was unrelenting. No threats to her life, destruction of her property, financial hardship or social isolation stopped her from getting the facts.

Innocent people were being murdered under the guise of protecting white women’s virtue from “brutish” black men. She exposed the truth of the situation: that this terrorism was used as a way to destroy leaders in the community and keep African-Americans in a state of fear, ignorance and dependency.

Wells died nearly 80 years ago, in 1931, but her legacy lives on.

She is still inspiring journalists to use words as ammunition against establishments.

She showed it is possible to take on an entire system, an entire nation and an entire world. Wells proved that words can move people to action.

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