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Woman Journalist Crusades Against Lynching

What’s the Main Idea?

Object Description

Biography: Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Probing Further

Ida B. Wells-Barnett.  Lynch Law in Georgia
Lynch Law in Georgia.
Chicago: Anti-Lynching Bureau, 1899
A.P. Murray Pamphlet Collection

Rare Book and Special
Collections Division

What's the Main Idea?

Object Description

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the fiery journalist, lecturer and civil rights militant, is best known for her tireless crusade against lynching and her fearless efforts to expose violence against blacks. Catapulted emotionally into the cause after three of her friends were lynched in Tennessee, and after the destruction of her presses, Wells-Barnett never stopped fighting for justice. Her published reports of lynching and her constant agitating helped to bring an international awareness to this inhumane practice. The purpose of Lynch Law in Georgia, as were other reports written by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, was "to give the public the facts, in the belief that there is still a sense of justice in the American people, and that it will yet assert itself in condemnation of outlawry and in defense of oppressed and persecuted humanity."

She encouraged church groups and women's clubs to be more aggressive in demanding political and civil rights and helped to create a number of national organizations-including the Niagara Movement, the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People--that would strengthen awareness of racial issues.

Biography

Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Civil Rights activist and investigative journalist, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, life was profoundly changed on March 9, 1892, when three friends (and successful businessmen) were lynched in Tennessee. This incident stemmed from their opening a grocery store too close to their white competitors. After she spoke out against this outrage in print, her newspaper office was destroyed, and her life was threatened.

Wells-Barnett continued to write for several black newspapers utilizing her news sources and her first-hand investigative information to show that lynching was more often used as a way to instill fear in and exert power over all blacks. Wells-Barnett interviewed witnesses at lynchings and looked at events immediately preceding the act to gain an understanding of the act of lynching in individual cases. What she uncovered was that lynchings were not for acts of sexual violence, but for attempting to register to vote, for being too successful, for failure to demure acceptably to whites, or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In addition, she showed that lynchings were not the act of out-of-control whites horrified over a grievous act. Rather, lynchings were often planned several days in advance and had police support. Not only were men lynched, but women and children were, too. Wells-Barnett's work uncovered the thin veneer which was used to justify lynching.

She was also a strong proponent for women's rights, and organized the first suffrage club for black women. Wells-Barnett spoke out strongly for the need of black women to work for anti-lynch laws. As a community activist, when she discovered that the YMCA excluded black men, she organized the Negro Fellowship League to provide lodging, employment assistance and social activities. Her efforts led to the overthrow of the YMCA's racist policies of exclusion. Wells-Barnett was also a co-founder of the Niagara Movement, which later became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Probing Further

  1. Read Lynch Law in Georgia. What is your reaction to it? What discrepancies do you read between the Atlanta Constitution's story, and Louis P. Le Vin's investigative report on the lynchings?

  2. Utilizing selected writings that you find by Ida Wells-Barnett, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and other African American leaders of the late nineteenth century, explain the various proposals advanced to combat political disenfranchisement, Jim Crow laws, and the widespread lynching of the 1890s.

  3. There have always been strong, influential African American women, such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell working toward eradicating racism and sexism in the United States. In 1898, at the fiftieth anniversary of the National American Women's Suffrage Association (NAWSA) meeting, Terrell gave an address on the The Progress of Colored Women, and in it she extolled how far African American women had come since Emancipation. Why do you suppose Terrell was asked to speak at NAWSA's meeting? What was the relationship between African American women and white suffragists?


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