Southern Horrors: Ida B. Wells
In the late 19th century, Ida B. Wells dedicated most of her life to spreading the word about the horrific nature of lynching in the American South. Wells was a journalist, teacher, rights activist, and a public speaker. As an African American woman in the south during this time, Ida B. Wells was able to use her status as journalist to expose to the general public the true facts of lynching cases that suggested black wrongdoings. Wells used cases from all over America to convey the innocence of African American lynching victims.
There was a huge double standard between whites and black on the premise of crime. Although white men also participated in heinous acts, they were far less punished compared to their black neighbors. The majority of the cases being brought up at the time suggested that African American men were violating white women. Many violent white men would choose to murder an African American because they suspected he had been “criminally intimate”1 with a white women.
In some instances, the reason for lynching was totally personal and obviously took place just to make a statement and “keep the nigger down”2 and the white men would justify it by claiming that the African American was wrong or barbaric. Because lynching is unlawful and without a trial, the accused stood little to no chance in seeking justice. Wells tries to make it clear that white women were to blame just as much as the black men who were involved in the affairs, and that in most of the situations the women were consenting or even initiating the intimate acts.
When trying expose the truth about these issues, Wells and others who spoke up were warned and told off by the white men’s press. Even though it was evident that the southern white population was unhappy about the claims being made against lynching, Wells made it clear that she had a specific purpose to disprove the assertions being made against her people. Angered by the murder of some close friends, Ida B. Wells decided to take it upon herself to stand up against unlawful lynching of wrongfully accused African Americans.
Wells explains, “Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so. ”3 She also 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.
Wells decided to devote her time to bringing justice and integrity to the African American race. Her writings were immensely important and many people who read them were given the opportunity to realize how unfair black people were being treated. It was obvious that Wells believed that in order to change something one must first raise awareness and expose harsh truths to people who otherwise would not be informed. On October 25th, 1892 Frederick Douglass, another African American social reformer, sent Ida B.
Wells a letter stating the importance of her work. In his letter he mentions, “You have dealt with the facts in a cool, painstaking fidelity and left those naked and contradicted facts to speak for themselves. ”5 Wells recognized that although the truth was unpleasant, it was imperative for the progression of African Americans in the south to reveal the true nature of white actions. Ida B. Wells and many other African Americans started taking action to uncover the actuality of racist crime and the white population decided to retaliate.
Wells wrote, “If Southern white men are not careful, they will over-reach themselves and public sentiment will have a reaction; a conclusion will be then reached which will be very damaging to the moral reputation of their women. ”6 This bold statement made southern whites very angry and they reacted by writing a response in “The Daily Commercial” a few days later. The article mentions, “Those negroes who are attempting to make the lynching of individuals of their race a means for arousing the worst passions of their kind are playing with a dangerous sentiment.
The Negroes may as well understand that there is no mercy for the Negro rapist and little patience with his defender. ”7 Later the same article states, “The fact that a black scoundrel is allowed to live and utter such loathsome and repulsive calumnies is a volume of evidence as to the wonderful patience of Southern whites. ”8 This example of retaliation and others inspired whites to collect and form a mob. Many men and women who were involved in the black’s newspapers had to leave town just to avoid being a victim of the mob’s violence.
The need to suppress black advancement was top priority to Southern whites who rejected the ideals of the Northern Union. Although this was the “post-civil war era” and blacks were no longer bound to slavery, white people made it a point to keep divine dominance over African Americans anyway that they could. They used the accusation of rape to maintain this power. Wells declared, “…the South is shielding itself behind the plausible screen of defending the honor of its women.”9 Lynching was a form of terrorism that excluded all ideas of a jury or fair trail, and this allowed the white Southerners to do what they thought was right, even if it was so blatantly wrong. Since the end of the Reconstruction period in 1877, Northern security was no longer granted to African American Southerners, allowing whites to be as cruel as they pleased. The point that Ida B. Wells was trying to make was that in cases of intimacy between a white woman and black man, most of the time it was not rape but consensual sex and therefor did not warrant punishment.
After mentioning a handful of unfair situations in which a white women and black man had been together resulting in the death or forced removal of the man, Wells says, “Hundreds of such cases might be cite, but enough have been given to prove the assertion that there are white women in the South who love the Afro-American’s company even as there are white men notorious for their preference for Afro-American women. ”10 Other activists agreed with this idea and also decided to speak out on the issue. J. C.
Duke, a fellow writer, mentioned in his paper, “There is a secret to this thing and we greatly suspect it is the growing appreciation of white Juliets for colored Romeos. ”11 Like many other instances, this statement of truth forced Duke to leave town to avoid violence. Whites used the claim of rape to kill or torture hundreds of black men who were considered to have no value to them now that slavery had been abolished. Perhaps the most dramatically obvious double standard between whites and blacks during the late 1800’s w=as in the reactions to claims of rape.
For example, if white man was accused of raping an African American woman he served way less of a punishment than a black man seducing a white women. Wells gives some examples of the outrageously different consequences each race faced. An example used was the story of Eph. Grizzard. Grizzard was only suspected to have acted inappropriately toward a white women yet was taken by the white mob and “dragged through the streets in broad daylight, knives plunged into him at every step…”12 In contrast, white violators were receiving different penalty.
Wells explains, “A white man in Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory, two months ago inflicted such injuries upon another Afro-American child that she died. He was not punished, but an attempt was made in the same town in the month of June to lynch an Afro-American who visited a white woman. ”13 Revealing cases such as there to the public allowed Ida B. Wells to make a difference and open the eyes of the average American to the harsh realities of the south. Ida B. Wells was famous for her journalism career and status as a rights activist.
She spent the majority of her life defending the integrity of her people and allowed people to realize the truth behind horrific events that occurred in the south in the late 1800’s. Without Wells’s and other courageous writer’s need for the truth, most people would never have recognized the terrible injustice happening right in front of them. The South was covered with racist acts of violence against men and women who were wrongfully accused and Wells decided to speak up about it. Although this triggered a negative response from the overpowering white population, Wells decided the truth and justice was far more important than fear.