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					                                   One Woman’s Crusade

        During the late nineteenth century, Ida B. Wells wrote a series of editorials and

pamphlets that exposed the growing prevalence of lynching in the South and debunked

the widely believed myth that justified those ruthless attacks as a means of punishment

for the rape of white women by black men. Fueled by outrage for the inhumanities

suffered by her brethren at the hands of ferocious white mobs, Wells began a crusade for

racial justice that spanned most of her life. Exiled from her homeland and risking death,

she opened America’s eyes to the atrocities of lynching with the publication of Southern

Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases. Although the barbaric practice of lynching

continued well into the twentieth century, her exploration into the true motivations

behind these attacks revealed the complexities of race relations in the post-

Reconstruction South and showed that blacks were more often the victims, rather than the

perpetrators, of heinous crimes.

         Ida B. Wells was born into slavery on July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs,

Mississippi .1 After emancipation, her father opened up a successful carpentry shop and

was a politically active leader in their small, rural community.2 A firm believer in the

power of education, he sent Ida to Rust College, where he was a trustee.3 When Ida was

just sixteen years old, Holly Springs fell victim to a yellow fever epidemic that killed her

mother, father, and an infant brother.4 As the eldest of eight children, she was forced to

take a teaching position in a local school in order to support her younger siblings.5 During

this period, she struggled not only with her new responsibilities, but also with the

growing racial tension that followed the end of Reconstruction in the South. Although

Ida’s early life was not as bleak as that of many southern blacks at the time, it is likely

that these difficulties, along with her early exposure to her father’s political involvement

laid the groundwork for her future career in activism.

         In the early 1880’s, Wells left Holly Springs for the budding metropolis of

Memphis, Tennessee. During a time when employment opportunities for black women

were usually limited to domestic positions, Wells was fortunate to land a job teaching at a

public school.6 Despite this, Ida admitted that she didn’t enjoy teaching, and she spent

much of her free time writing personal letters, editorials, and articles for African

American newspapers.7 During this period, segregation and Jim Crow laws in the South

became increasingly widespread, and Wells faced the first battle in her war against racial

injustice. In 1884, she boarded a white “ladies car” on a train owned by Chesapeake and

Ohio Railroad.8 When the conductor demanded that she move to a black Jim Crow car,

she refused and was forcibly removed.9 Infuriated and unable to accept this unfair

treatment, Wells filed a lawsuit against the railroad company. The court ruled in Ida’s

favor and awarded her a $500 settlement. 10 Her initial victory was short lived, however,

when the State Supreme Court reversed the decision. Wells’ lawsuit against the railroad

was the first time since the Supreme Court’s repeal of the Civil Rights Bill that an

African American had challenged the new and unjust system of segregation.11 Wells

subsequently wrote an article about the event, and its publication in a black newspaper

formally signaled the beginning of her career in activist journalism.12 Despite ultimate

defeat in court, this incident illustrated Wells’ unwillingness to accept the blatant

violation of civil rights on the basis of color, as well as her fierce determination to fight

for equality that continued throughout her life.

        As the nineteenth century came to an end, Wells’ career in journalism flourished.

She had become part owner of the black Memphis newspaper The Free Speech and

Headlight, and she was a contributing writer for several other local and national

publications.13 While Wells was enjoying her relative success as a newspaperwoman,

other blacks across the South were suffering from increasingly hostile attitudes from

whites, and the sinister practice of lynching began to sweep through rural areas. Despite

the fact that lynching occurred sporadically throughout the country, especially in the

Western states where the victims were mostly white, the South saw an alarmingly high

rate of lynching, with an overwhelming majority of black victims.14 Although instances

of lynching did occur during slavery and the Civil War, its frequency and ferocity had

increased throughout the late nineteenth century and peaked during the economic

depression of the 1890’s.15 A typical lynching victim was accused of committing a crime,

kidnapped, tortured, and then murdered. In many cases, the accused was actually arrested

and sometimes even tried, before a mob carried him away, with little, if any protest from

officers of the law. The victims were most often shot, hanged, burned alive, or subjected

to a grotesque combination of these methods. Operating under the guise of vigilante

justice, the mobs often consisted of prominent white members of the community.

Although the victims of lynching were accused of a variety of offenses, the vast majority

of the attacks were justified as punishment for the rape of white women. Proclaiming

themselves protectors of the moral purity and virtue of their women, the Southern white

men who participated in the attacks maintained that it was their honorable duty. Perhaps

the most disturbing aspect of these deadly assaults was the festive atmosphere that began

to emerge at so-called “lynching parties”. Large crowds, including women and children

dressed in their Sunday best, sometimes picnicked and even posed for photographs with

the mutilated corpse of the unfortunate victim.

        Despite the fact that lynching had become frighteningly widespread in the South,

fear and intimidation ensured little protest from Southern blacks. Although they were

sometimes able to fend off vicious mobs or hide the accused, the overwhelming climate

of racial hostility and their lack of legal protection at the time rendered them essentially

powerless to stop the attacks. As a resident of Memphis, Ida had surely been aware of the

increasing wave of mob violence, which the mainstream white newspapers often

recounted in a sickeningly triumphant tone. Yet, it wasn’t until 1892 that Ida’s life was

forever changed by an act of lynching that would mark the beginning of her crusade

against the menace of mob brutality. Three of her friends, Thomas Moss, Calvin

McDowell, and Henry Stewart operated a small, successful grocery store outside of

Memphis. Resentful of the prosperity of the black owned business, a white man who

owned another nearby grocery store began a campaign of harassment against the men,

which eventually culminated in a mob storming into the store.16 Fearing for their lives,

the black men fired shots into the crowd, wounding three white men. Following their

arrests and indictments, the mob returned, dragged them from the jail and proceeded to

shoot, mutilate and hang them.17 This tragic incident, which became known as “the

lynching at the curve”18 had a very profound effect on Ida, and it ushered in a new

chapter of her life.

          Devastated by the deaths of her friends by lynching, Wells began to reexamine

the widely held myths surrounding the unbridled wave of mob violence in the South.

Although rape was frequently cited as the motive for lynching, this incident was clearly

not of a sexual nature. Rather, the three men were murdered because of the economic

threat their business posed to a white man.19 After an intense investigation into both the

triple lynching of her friends and previous cases of lynching, Ida concluded that the cry

of rape was a commonly used disguise for much darker motivations behind the attacks.

As was plainly illustrated in the lynching at the curve, she found that most instances of

lynching were an attempt to exert white supremacy over blacks in the form of terror and

intimidation. This domination through fear ensured that blacks did not overstep the social

and economic boundaries laid out for them in the ideology of white supremacy, and those

who did often paid with their lives. Compelled by her findings and unable to hide her

contempt for both this system of intimidation and the subsequent defamation of its

victims with the label of “rapist”, Wells published an editorial in the Free Speech titled

“Eight Negroes lynched since last issue of the Free Speech”.20 Challenging both the myth

of black rapists and the honor of Southern white women with her insinuation of their

frequent consensual sexual relationships with black men, she wrote, “Nobody in this

section believes the old thread-bare lie that Negro men assault white women. If Southern

men are not careful they will overreach themselves and a conclusion will be reached

which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women.”21 When Wells’

editorial hit the newsstands, whites in Memphis were unable to conceal their rage. An

angry mob took to the streets on a manhunt for Wells, who was in New York at the time.

One witness to the chaotic scene reported that, upon her discovery, the mob intended to

tie her naked to a tree and whip her to death.22 During their frantic search for Wells, they

stormed her office at the Free Speech and destroyed the press. Unable to return to the

South for fear of retribution, Ida B. Wells remained in New York, where she continued to

focus all of her energy into exposing the truth about lynching.

      Within a year of her exile from Memphis, Ida B. Wells published her most famous

and controversial work, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases. Printed in

pamphlet form with an introductory letter by the African American hero Frederick

Douglass, Southern Horrors was both the product of months of intensive research into

lynching and the motivations behind it, and Wells’ own simmering rage over the

mistreatment of her race. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases refuted the rape

accusations of Southern lynch mobs, attacked the sexual politics of the South, and called

on fellow blacks to resist mob violence. With its powerful content and clever composition

style, it provided an in depth look at the racial, sexual and control issues that Wells had

identified as the underlying conditions behind lynching. The essay consists of individual

accounts of lynching, Ida’s own research findings and commentary, and excerpts from

articles printed in Southern white newspapers with strategically placed parenthesized

punctuation marks, mocking the validity of blatantly racist content. However, more than

anything, Southern Horrors was a defense for the victims of lynching, who died as

accused rapists.

         In Southern Horrors, Wells argued that black men could not have been the race

of savage rapists that lynch mobs in the South had increasingly alleged. She reasoned that

during the Civil War, when “…white women of the South were at the mercy of the

race…” the accusation of rape was unheard of, and therefore, the sudden and collective

transformation of black men into rapists was preposterous.23 According to Wells’

investigation, Southern records indicated that of the 728 blacks lynched in the South

between 1884 and1892, all but 50 were murdered for raping white women.24 Because the

charge of rape was considered so vile, Wells noted that even in the African American

community, many were inclined to believe these allegations25, and as a result, they failed

to realize the true depth of the crisis. However, contrary to public belief, according to

Wells’ research, only one third of the 728 lynching victims murdered had even been

accused of rape26. Of those that had, Ida contended that they were most likely involved in

consensual relationships with white women that had been discovered. She enraged

Southerners with the revelation that consensual interracial sexual relationships were a

common occurrence in the South. Since the days of slavery, it was well known, yet

rarely acknowledged, that white men often had black mistresses. Yet, the notion that

“pure” white Southern ladies would willingly engage in affairs with black men was

incredibly inflammatory to the white Southerners’ sense of pride and supremacy over

African Americans. While white men were free to frolic with black women, willing or

not, the black man who was caught with a white woman was liable to become the target

of mob violence, and sometimes he would pay with his life. Ida asserted that this sexual

double standard was simply a device for white men to exert their “superiority” and

dominance over blacks, while at the same time preserving the moral reputation of the

white women involved in these illicit affairs. In an effort to salvage their supposed virtue,

these “white Delilahs”27 often seduced these “black Sampsons”28 and then made no effort

to defend them upon discovery of the affair, instead allowing them to die under the stain

of the label rapist.

        With so many black men dying as presumed rapists, Wells wrote Southern

Horrors to vindicate both the honor of these falsely accused men, as well as that of the

entire race. Despite the fact that many of the victims of lynching were law-abiding

citizens and upstanding members of their communities, the circumstances of their deaths

left their reputations tarnished. Wells realized that the frequency of rape accusations had

begun to inevitably give rise to the emergence of a stereotype that black men were brutes

and rapists. Knowing full well that the further dehumanization of blacks would only help

to justify the rampant discrimination of her race, Southern Horrors was Wells’ attempt to

put an end to this vicious cycle. During an age when Southern blacks were facing an

uphill battle to gain some sort of economic and political power in the face of Jim Crow,

the myth of black rapists would certainly prove to be another barrier to the progress of the

black race.

         After establishing the true motivations behind lynching, Southern Horrors urged

all Southern blacks to be prepared to defend themselves against mob violence. As long as

blacks remained defenseless, Wells reasoned, lynch mobs would continue to prey on their

vulnerability. She warned that until a white man must risk his own death every time he

takes part in a lynching, he would not place any value on the lives of African

Americans.29 With no where else to turn for protection, she proclaimed that, “…a

Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used

for that protection which the law refuses to give.”(SHpg10).

         After the publication of Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases, Wells’

shocking revelations about the true nature of lynching elicited a relentless barrage of

public criticism. Many whites were outraged at her allegations of consensual interracial

sex, and they responded by publicly attacking her personal character. Many white

mainstream newspapers printed vicious insults, including the New York Times, which

referred to her as a “slanderous and nasty-minded mulatress”.30 Labeled “a black harlot”

in search of a “white husband”, a “strumpet”, a “saddle-colored Sapphira”, and a

“prostitute bent on miscegenation”31, it was obvious that the Southerners had focused

much of their anger on the fact that she was a woman. In fact, sexism was such a

pervasive force in America at the time that even the black community was uncomfortable

with such potent allegations coming from a woman, despite the fact that they were

pleased with her refutation of the rape myth.32 Wells later wrote that a group of Northern

black men had “asked her to put the soft pedal on charges against white women and their

relations with black men”.33 Although Wells suffered severe chastisement for her

“unorthodox female behavior”, the publication of Southern Horrors forced the issue of

lynching to the forefront of American consciousness. Even those who felt that Wells had

overreached her boundaries as a woman could no longer pretend that lynch mobs were

the defenders of the law that they claimed to be.

       It is difficult to assess the full impact that Southern Horrors had on the surge of

lynching in the South. Although these attacks continued for well over fifty years after its

publication, it certainly had an affect on the way the public viewed mob violence. Despite

the fact that blacks and whites publicly invalidated her work on the basis of her gender, it

undoubtedly raised uncertainty as to the soundness of the common rape defense of

Southern lynch mobs. Interestingly enough, having originally set out to expose the sexual

and racial motives behind lynching, the barrage of blatant sexism she met with only

strengthened her resolve and provided her with a new hurdle to overcome. As Wells

continued to speak out against lynching, even traveling to England to spread her message,

she also became involved in the women’s rights movement of the time, inextricably

linking the two issues.34 Reasoning that black and female political power was the key to

putting an end to lynching, she actively pursued the cause of African American and

women’s suffrage, joining the National Association for Colored Women, becoming

president of the Negro Fellowship League, and later helping to found the National

Association for the Advancement of Colored People35 and the Alpha Suffrage Club.36

Yet, even among fellow blacks and women, her outspokenness caused uneasiness, and

she was denied a leadership position in the mostly male NAACP, instead being assigned

as the head of the Anti-Lynching Bureau.37 Married and now residing in Chicago, she

continued to write and lecture on the now interrelated topics of lynching and suffrage

well into the twentieth century, publishing several more pamphlets, including one in 1910

titled How Enfranchisement Stops Lynching.38 Although Wells was a very controversial

figure at the time, and she never really received the widespread praise she deserved for

her tireless efforts to stop the horrors of lynching, the publication of Southern Horrors,

her magnum opus, marked a distinctive turning point in the crisis of sexually and racially

motivated lynching in America.

        Ida B. Wells dedicated her life to revealing the brutalities that lynch mobs in the

South were committing against innocent African American men. Her most famous and

compelling work, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All It’s Phases, shocked the country

with its revelations about the true nature of sexual and racial relations at the time in the

South. The public had long been led to believe that lynching was a sort of vigilante

justice carried out in retaliation for the rape of white women, and they had made little

attempt to even question the validity of the charges. Wells’ research and subsequent

writings on the topic exposed lynching as a method for white Southerners to terrorize and

exert control over blacks who had overstepped their boundaries, either by posing some

sort of real or imagined threat to the concept of white superiority, or, more commonly, by

engaging in a sexual affair with a white woman. Exiled from her home and subjected to

an onslaught of vicious criticism from both blacks and whites across the country, Wells

paid a high price for her attempt to stop lynching. Yet, despite the fact that lynching

continued for many years to come, the publication of Southern Horrors marked the

beginning of anti-lynching movements across the country and helped to curtail the

stereotyping of black men as rapists. Ida B. Wells’ overwhelming desire for racial justice

was most eloquently stated in the preface to Southern Horrors. She wrote:

             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.39

    Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, ed. One Woman, One Vote (Troutdale: Newsage Press, 1995), 264.
    Miriam DeCosta-Willis, ed. The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 7.
  DeCosta-Willis, 7.
  Wheeler, 264.
  Wheeler, 264.
  DeCosta-Willis, 20.
  DeCosta-Willis, 20.
  Wheeler, 265.
  Wheeler, 265.
   Wheeler, 265.
   Wheeler, 265.
   Ruth Ashby and Deborah Gore Ohrn, eds. Herstory (New York: Viking, 1995), 150.

   Wheeler, 265.
   W. Fitzhugh Brundage, ed. Under Sentence of Death: Lynching In the South (Chapel Hill: The
University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 4.
   Brundage, 60.
   Wheeler, 265.
   Wheeler, 265.
   Wheeler, 265.
   Brundage, 295
   Wheeler, 266.
   Wheeler, 266.
   DeCosta-Willis, 2.
   Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (New York: The New York Age Print,
1892), 3.
   Wells, 5.
   Wells, 6.
   Wells, 5.
   Wells, 4.
   Wells, 4.
   Wells, 9.
   Brundage, 305.
   Brundage, 305.
   Brundage, 305.
   Brundage, 305.
   Ashby and Ohrn, 150.
   Ashby and Ohrn, 151.
   Wheeler, 267.
   Brundage, 309.
   Wheeler, 267.
   Wells, 2.


Ashby, Ruth, and Deborah Gore Ohrn., ed. Herstory. New York: Viking, 1995.

Brundage, W. Fitzhugh., ed. Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South.

      Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

DeCosta-Willis, Miriam., ed. The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells. Boston:

       Beacon Press, 1995.

Pride, Armistead S., and Clint C. Wilson II. A History of the Black Press.

      Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997.

Wells, Ida B., Southern Horrors: Lynch Law In All Its Phases. New York: The New York

      Age Print, 1892.

Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill., ed. One Woman, One Vote. Troutdale: Newsage

      Press, 1995.


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