Activism: it’s one of those thankless jobs, which is why many people tend not to choose it as a life-long goal. But only those who are truly dedicated to a cause persevere and make it their raison d’être for life.
Ida B. Wells embodies the very meaning of “activist;” she was one of the first to investigate lynchings in the south during the post-Civil War years. This was no small feat for her back then–it was during a time when not many women, black and white, were involved in the public sphere.
Born in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Wells began her activism as a journalist and then as a newspaper editor. Though she participated in different movements and clubs with women and men alike, both white and black, her number one cause was civil rights. In a time where Booker T. Washington established the Tuskegee Institute, an industrial education institution for blacks, and believed in social segregation from whites, Wells believed in justice and equality for all. She knew that “separate, but equal” did not mean equality:
Booker T. Washington made a great mistake in imagining that black people could gain their rights merely by making themselves factors in industrial life. -Ida B. Wells
Wells fought for equality for blacks. Her first act of activism happened when she was a young woman: when she was forced to give up her first class seat on the Chesapeake Railroad car in 1884 to move to the crowded smoking car. Shortly after that incident, she filed a lawsuit against the company and became the first Southern black to appeal to a state court since the Supreme Court’s Civil Rights case in 1883. The lower court ruled in Wells’ favor, but the decision was reversed by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1887.
Much of Wells’ activism was writing and investigating about lynchings. She wrote several pamphlets which were distributed at the World’s Columbian Exposition (also known as The Chicago World’s Fair) but also during her anti-lynch tours overseas in Britain. In one of her pamphlets, Wells emphatically states:
The Afro-American is not a bestial race. If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service. Other considerations are of minor importance. -Ida B. Wells, in her 1892 pamphlet entitled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases“
Let us not forget that Ida was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP], despite not being elected as an officer. Ms. Wells-Barnett (as she was known after she married lawyer and civil rights activist, Ferdinand Barnett) was not only a fighter against lynching, but also for women’s suffrage. There were many times when Barnett was excluded from these white women-dominated activities.
One particular event (among many others where she was excluded based on her race and/or gender) shows that Wells-Barnett was a true activist: Wells-Barnett had been asked by the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association (IESA) to represent the Alpha Suffrage Club (a club that Ida had founded in early 1913), the first black women’s suffrage club in Chicago at a 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. After she arrived, Wells-Barnett was asked by the president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA, a white women’s suffrage organization) not to march with them but instead march with the all-black contingent. Some members of NAWSA and IESA were upset by this decision; the president of IESA Grace Wilbur Trout later revealed that:
We should like to have Mrs. Barnett march with us, but if the [National American Woman's Suffrage Association] has decided it is unwise to include the colored women, I think we should abide by its decision.
True activists like Ms. Wells-Barnett continue to do their work despite the lack of support they have in fighting for their causes. Wells was, like many strong women at that time, misunderstood. She was an assertive woman who would do anything to help her race and her causes even if it meant losing friendships or giving up leadership roles in important civil rights organizations that she helped to establish. Hence Paula J. Giddings titled the biography on Ida B. Wells: Ida: A Sword Among Lions. In the introduction of the book, Giddings tells us that:
During the latter period of her life, Wells was more militant than all of the reform figures mentioned above and publicly crossed swords with them. On the other hand, history books are filled with the names of combative and highly individualistic people. And despite her reputation as an isolated–if courageous–crank, there is ample evidence that Wells was not petulant in the sense that she refused to cooperate with those whom she personally disagreed with over matters that benefited the race. -Giddings, “Introduction” to Ida: Sword Among Lions, pgs. 6-7
If Wells were a man, people of her time would not have found her so assertive. In modern times, Wells would have been referred to by other people as a “bitch” with her dominant behavior. But no matter how militant she was, she apparently wasn’t “loud enough” for the historians documenting racial issues after the Civil War. In Giddings’ book, the author reminds us that to this day that Wells is left out of books and documents that explain the history of lynching and civil rights post-slavery era. Wells was truly an activist in her own right–and let us not forget the impact she made on lynching, civil rights issues, and women’s suffrage. Let’s continue to carry on her name.