Saturday, February 11, 2012

Thoughts on Ida B. Wells

           Looking through the prism of history, I'd be shocked if you could find someone as bold as Ida B. Wells. She was many things in her life, a journalist, activist, and newspaper editor. She also refused to give up her seat on a train before Rosa Parks was even born. 
She is probably most well known for the pamphlets that she published, "Southern Horrors" and "A Red Record" which were followed by an anti-lynching crusade where she traveled all around the US and Europe to expose what was going on at the time. 

         I have never read anything like “Southern Horrors”. Most of the history that I have read or am taught comes from secondhand sources, not firsthand accounts like this. This book reveals a much more real and gritty depiction of history, which is a stark contrast to the sanitized, half-true, versions of history that I have grown used to reading. I was uncomfortable when reading some of the material that Wells wrote. It was hard to read about the graphic descriptions of lynchings, but it unfortunately may be the only way to understand the inhuman treatment that some people were given. After finishing reading “Southern Horrors” it is evident that what happened to black people in America during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was nothing short of genocide. The stories from this time period, the “Nadir era”, are seldom told in mainstream recollections of history. This period is skipped over and is just seen as a time when nothing happened between the end of slavery and the civil rights movement. Our failure to tell the truths of this era reveals a lot about how we tend to view all history. We tend to remove struggle from history and replace it with things that are easier to tell. Perhaps this prevents certain people from having guilt for what their nation once supported or resent for what people like them once did. It also allows nationalist ideas like “American exceptionalism” to invade the public psyche.
         One of the more interesting stories she documented took place in Roanoke, Virginia. This case is noteworthy for a number of reasons. First, it occurred in a city, dispelling the myth that lynchings only happened in small rural towns where “the power of the law is entirely inadequate to meet the emergency.” Secondly, there were actually people of authority who spoke out against this killing, most notably the mayor. The mayor even went as far as bringing out the militia to protect the jail where the accused man was in. Even despite this brave move however, the anger of the mob proved to be too much. Soon the mayor was driven out of his own town, allowing the crazed group to take out their brutality on another innocent person.
       To further cement the tribal way of thinking in 19th century America, Wells provides a number of accounts of white people getting off Scott-free for crimes that they were known to have committed. Even if blacks in the local area organized and protested the lack of justice, they were always overpowered by the whites, whom had power and guns, and in turn would do what they could to defend their white brethren, even if they were guilty.
      The mob that ensued during the search for and after the killing of Robert Charles seemed to have a collective mind of its own. A mind fueled by bigotry and took rage out on even the most innocent passerby. 75 year-old Baptiste Thilo was killed just for being black.  Of course, no one faced any legal actions as a result of his death. New Orleans, it seems, had turned into every racist’s fantasyland: a free-for-all killing spree that is governed not by justice but by the intentions of the most spiteful.
      Unfortunately, the mob mentality was not unique to the streets of New Orleans. All across the country blacks were forced to feel the wrath of unruly mobs and militias. Wells’ account of Ed Coy gives an example of what unfortunately was an all-too-common crime against minorities. Coy was accused of assaulting a white women, and then tied to a tree while people, including children proceeded to stab him. Ida B. Wells perfectly sums up the consensus of mob rule America when she describes the case of C. J. Miller by saying “the mob would wait for no justification” (page 203).
      Based off of reading “Southern Horrors”, Ida B. Wells seems like a person to be admired. It is refreshing to actually find out about someone who, even in the face of great danger, was willing to do whatever they could to educate those who were willing or able to read her work. What she was documenting must have been particularly difficult for her, seeing as the victims were members of her own ethnic group. Then again, maybe that is also the very thing that propelled her to give such detailed accounts of brutality. Given the time period she lived in, she had (at least) two major things going against her: the fact that she was black and the fact that she was a woman. Knowing this, it is telling of her character, as I think only the bravest and boldest of people would be able to do what she did. As much as I’d like to tell myself that I would have done what she did, I honestly don’t know. Although I will say that after knowing her story, I will try to do more to speak out against modern injustices. I think that if nothing else, her example proves that none of us in this time have much of an excuse to be timid about social justice. 

The stories mentioned are documented in Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900                        

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