“Virtue knows no color line, and the chivalry which depends upon complexion of skin and texture of hair can command no honest respect.” – Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)
Many women civil rights activists have been left out of the history books, but it’s worth taking note of their impact on the movement towards civil liberties and justice in the United States. One such woman who deserves to be studied is American investigative journalist, Ida B Wells. As an early leader in the civil rights movement, Wells was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Although seldom mentioned in school history books, Wells centered her life around fighting for equal rights for African Americans, particularly women, and was likely the most famous African American woman in the country during this time.
Wells was born into slavery in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. She completed her formal education at Rust College and Fisk University and taught school in Memphis, Tennessee. While living in Memphis, Wells co-owned and wrote for Memphis Free Speech and Headlight Newspaper. Her reporting covered incidents of racial segregation and equality. In the 1890s Wells documented lynching in the United States in an indictment she called “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law and all its Phases.” This investigative reporting was carried in black newspapers across the country and exposed lynching as a means of power and control to intimidate and oppress blacks, as opposed to the claims of whites that lynching was reserved only for criminals.
Wells’ newspaper office was destroyed by a white mob and she and her family often faced threats of violence. Wells spent the rest of her life championing in the both the civil rights movement and the women’s suffrage movement, amidst the ongoing threats. Because Wells was so outspoken about her black feminist beliefs she often faced criticism and public disapproval, often from other civil rights leaders. Despite the threats and constant criticism, the skilled and persuasive public speaker traveled nationally and internationally to give lectures.
In a world before the internet, cell phone cameras, and twitter, Ida B. Wells and her investigative journalism was able to bring the terror of lynching and systemic oppression and place it in the hands of readers throughout the country, making it difficult to turn a blind eye to. The research and work of Ida B. Wells also provided framework for other leaders in the movement, including Frederick Douglas. The work of Ida B. Wells was influential, impactful, and of great historical importance and relevance.
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