Crusader for Justice (1862-1931)
Breaking Barriers: From Racial Equality to Women's Rights

by A.D. Sheffield

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was fearless and respected, an uncompromising fighter for the rights of all human beings (1).

Ida B. Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, six months before the Emancipation Proclamation freed all of the slaves in the Confederate states. At sixteen, she was orphaned by an epidemic of yellow fever. In order to prevent the separation of her family, she became a teacher to support her younger siblings. Wells became a public figure in Memphis when in 1884 she led a campaign against segregation on the local railway. When she was twenty-two and a teacher in Tennessee, she was asked by the conductor to give up her seat to a white man. Wells refused. She had purchased a first-class ticket and was determined not to move from her seat. The conductor and two other men literally dragged her from her seat while some of the white passengers applauded. This occurred 71 years before Rosa Parks. It is important to realize that her defiant act was before Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the fallacious doctrine of "separate but equal," which constitutionalized racial segregation. However, Wells, who was determined to fight for justice, sued the railroad and won her case. When the decision was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court, Wells just became more determined to fight against racial injustice wherever she found it. She was not afraid to speak out against what she perceived to be injustices against African Americans, especially in the school system where she worked. She believed that the facilities and supplies available to African American children were always inferior to those offered to whites. As a consequence of her editorials about the schools, Wells lost her teaching position in 1891.

Her suit against the railroad company also sparked her career as a journalist. Wells became a partner and later sole owner of the newspaper the Free Speech, where she reported on the atrocities played out against African Americans in the community. This included an investigation into lynching and the discovery that during a short period 728 black men and women had been lynched by white mobs. In 1892 three of her friends were lynched. She wrote a scathing series of editorials following the lynching, and her newspaper office was destroyed as a result. She could not return to Memphis, so she moved to Chicago and continued her blistering journalistic attacks on Southern injustices. She was especially active in investigating and exposing the fraudulent "reasons" given to lynch black men, which by now had become a common occurrence. Wells wrote to President McKinley asking him to take action against the lynching of blacks that was taking place in the southern states: "For nearly twenty years lynching crimes have been committed and permitted by this Christian nation. Nowhere in the civilized world save the United States of America do men, possessing all civil and political power, go out in bands of 50 to 5,000 to hunt down, shoot, hang or burn to death a single individual, unarmed and absolutely powerless. Statistics show that nearly 10,000 American citizens have been lynched in the past twenty years. To our appeals for justice the stereotyped reply has been the government could not interfere in a state matter(2)." Wells took her cause to England to gain support and earned a reputation as a fiery orator and courageous leader of her people.

Wells held strong political opinions and she upset many people with her views on women's rights. When she was twenty-four, she wrote, "I will not begin at this late day by doing what my soul abhors; sugaring men, weak deceitful creatures, with flattery to retain them as escorts or to gratify a revenge." In 1895, she married Attorney F. L. Barnett. She remained active after she was married and was known to carry her nursing children with her during her crusades. In 1909, Barnett was asked to be a member of the "Committee of 40." This committee established the groundwork for the organization now known as the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization in the country. Although Ida B. Wells was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she was also among the few black leaders to explicitly oppose Booker T. Washington and his strategies. As a result, she was viewed as one the most radical of the so-called "radicals" who organized the NAACP and marginalized from positions within its leadership. She actively participated in efforts to gain the vote for women and simultaneously campaigned against racial bigotry within the women's movement. Wells-Barnett successfully integrated the U.S. suffrage movement when she refused to walk with the other black women at the rear of a 1913 Washington parade and instead infiltrated the ranks of her white Illinois "peers" after the march began. As late as 1930, she became disgusted by the nominees of the major parties to the state legislature, so Wells-Barnett decided to run for the Illinois State legislature, which made her one of the first black women to run for public office in the United States. A year later, she passed away after a lifetime crusading for justice.

She wrote in her autobiography, Crusade for Justice (1928): “In the ten years succeeding the Civil War thousands of Negroes were murdered for the crime of casting a ballot. As a consequence their vote is entirely nullified throughout the entire South. The laws of the Southern states make it a crime for whites and Negroes to inter-marry or even ride in the same railway carriage. Both crimes are punishable by fine and imprisonment. The doors of churches, hotels, concert halls and reading rooms are alike closed against the Negro as a man, but every place is open to him as a servant (3)."

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a fearless anti-lynching crusader, suffragist, women's rights advocate, journalist, and speaker. She stands as one of our nation's most uncompromising leaders and most ardent defenders of democracy (4).

(1) National Women's Hall of Fame
(2) Royster, Jacqueline Jones, editor. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: the Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
(3) Duster, A. (Ed.) (1970). Crusade for justice: The autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
(4) Lee D. Baker, April 1996. Source: Franklin, Vincent P. 1995 Living Our Stories, Telling Our Truths: Autobiography and the Making of African American Intellectual Tradition. 1995: Oxford University Press.

Other Sources:
Harris, Trudier, compiler. Selected Works of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Ida Wells-Barnett, Crusader for Justice
©2007 Laconneau/Sheffield


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