Ida B. Wells Speaks from the Grave: The Lynching of Black Bodies

No other historical figure has impacted my life like Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Born July 16, 1862, today we pay homage to our fore-mother. In the midst of today’s racial tensions, civil unrest and police brutality, I wish to highlight some of the words of Ida B. Wells regarding the lynching of Black bodies. She was a fiercely uncompromising leader in the cause of anti-lynching, women’s rights, women’s suffrage and civil rights. As an investigative journalist, she weaponized the pen. Wells used the power of the pen to force the United States to reckon with the genocidal lynchings that were enacted largely upon Black men, women and children. According to historian Jacqueline Jones Royster, “Typically, [Wells] would identify a problem or issue, collect data that served to instruct and enlighten, and report the findings to her readers.” Connecting to her audience, Wells stated, “I wrote in a plain common-sense way on the things which concerned our people. I never used a word of two syllabus where one would serve the purpose.”

The book that outlines her anti-lynching campaign is titled Southern Horrors, which is one of the most detailed accounts of lynching that exists. Wells largely contributed to today’s record of the 4,743 lynchings that occurred between 1882 and 1968. Boldly, Wells attributed the majority of the lynchings to the lies of White women claiming to have been raped by Black men. Wells presented evidence that these relationships were actually consensual, and only upon discovery was the cry of rape fabricated by White women. In her newspaper, ironically called Free Press, Wells wrote, “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old thread bare lie that Negro men rape white women.” In light of the fallout that came from Wells exercising her first amendment right, the irony of the press’s name cannot be lost. Daring to oppose and expose the terrorism of 4,743 Black human beings, White women’s immorality and legalized lynching, Wells and her co-editor were run out of town under the threat of death. Meanwhile, a White mob overtook and seized Wells’ press.

With respect to lynching and state-sanctioned violence, Wells noted, “The same programme of hanging, then shooting bullets into the lifeless bodies was carried out to the letter.” As we observe civil unrest today, there are ominous parallels between the lynchings of yesterday and the police brutality of today. In fact, I recently moderated a webinar titled, Still Troubled: The Lynching of George Floyd, and also authored a blog post regarding my journey from Trayvon Martin to George Floyd. The killings of both men speak to the soul of Ida B. Wells’ anti-lynching campaign.

From the grave, Ida B. Wells leaves us to ponder the following. “Can you remain silent and inactive when such things are done in our own community and country?”

In the spirit of Ida B. Wells, today, I write for justice.

Blogger: Dr. Krishauna Hines-Gaither

All quotes are from the book Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The anti-lynching campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900.

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