Standing for a cause

Presented by: Carol Boeth


The pioneer organizer of the crusade against lynching was a Black woman named Ida B. Wells-Barnett.

She was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862 and died in Chicago, Illinois 1931 at the age of sixty-nine.


Mrs. Barnett, editor of the Memphis Free Speech, had more to do with originating and carrying forward the anti-lynching crusade than any other person. Almost single-handedly, she rallied anti-lynching sentiment in the United states and England. She served as chairman of the Anti-Lynching Bureau of the Afro-American Council. Mrs. Wells published several pamphlets exposing the barbarity of lynching, including A Red Record written in 1894.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Her Passion for Justice
Lee D. Baker

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.

Although enslaved prior to the Civil War, her parents were able to support their seven children because her mother was a “famous” cook and her father was a skilled carpenter. When Ida was only fourteen, a tragic epidemic of Yellow Fever swept through Holly Springs and killed her parents and youngest sibling. Emblematic of the righteousness, responsibility, and fortitude that characterized her life, she kept the family together by securing a job teaching. She managed to continue her education by attending near-by Rust College. She eventually moved to Memphis to live with her aunt and help raise her youngest sisters.

It was in Memphis where she first began to fight (literally) for racial and gender justice. In 1884 she was asked by the conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to give up her seat on the train to a white man and ordered her into the smoking or “Jim Crow” car, which was already crowded with other passengers. Despite the 1875 Civil Rights Act banning discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color, in theaters, hotels, transports, and other public accommodations, several railroad companies defied this congressional mandate and racially segregated its passengers. 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. Wells wrote in her autobiography:

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

I refused, saying that the forward car [closest to the locomotive] was a smoker, and as I was in the ladies’ car, I proposed to stay. . . [The conductor] tried to drag me out of the seat, but the moment he caught hold of my arm I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back, and as he had already been badly bitten he didn’t try it again by himself. He went forward and got the baggageman and another man to help him and of course they succeeded in dragging me out.

Wells was forcefully removed from the train and the other passengers–all whites–applauded. When Wells returned to Memphis, she immediately hired an attorney to sue the railroad. She won her case in the local circuit courts, but the railroad company appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, and it reversed the lower court’s ruling. This was the first of many struggles Wells engaged, and from that moment forward, she worked tirelessly and fearlessly to overturn injustices against women and people of color.

Her suit against the railroad company also sparked her career as a journalist. Many papers wanted to hear about the experiences of the 25-year-old school teacher who stood up against white supremacy. Her writing career blossomed in papers geared to African American and Christian audiences.

In 1889 Wells became a partner in the Free Speech and Headlight. The paper was also owned by Rev. R. Nightingale– the pastor of Beale Street Baptist Church. He “counseled” his large congregation to subscribe to the paper and it flourished, allowing her to leave her position as an educator.

In 1892 three of her friends were lynched. Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart. These three men were owners of People’s Grocery Company, and their small grocery had taken away customers from competing white businesses. A group of angry white men thought they would “eliminate” the competition so they attacked People’s grocery, but the owners fought back, shooting one of the attackers. The owners of People’s Grocery were arrested, but a lynch-mob broke into the jail, dragged them away from town, and brutally murdered all three. Again, this atrocity galvanized her mettle. She wrote in The Free Speech

The city of Memphis has demonstrated that neither character nor standing avails the Negro if he dares to protect himself against the white man or become his rival. There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are out-numbered and without arms. The white mob could help itself to ammunition without pay, but the order is rigidly enforced against the selling of guns to Negroes. There is therefore only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.

Many people took the advice Wells penned in her paper and left town; other members of the Black community organized a boycott of white owned business to try to stem the terror of lynchings. Her newspaper office was destroyed as a result of the muckraking and investigative journalism she pursued after the killing of her three friends. She could not return to Memphis, so she moved to Chicago. She however continued her blistering journalistic attacks on Southern injustices, being especially active in investigating and exposing the fraudulent “reasons” given to lynch Black men, which by now had become a common occurrence.

In Chicago, she helped develop numerous African American women and reform organizations, but she remained diligent in her anti-lynching crusade, writing Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. She also became a tireless worker for women’s suffrage, and happened to march in the famous 1913 march for universal suffrage in Washington, D.C. Not able to tolerate injustice of any kind, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, along with Jane Addams, successfully blocked the establishment of segregated schools in Chicago.

In 1895 Wells married the editor of one of Chicago’s early Black newspapers. She wrote: “I was married in the city of Chicago to Attorney F. L. Barnett, and retired to what I thought was the privacy of a home.” She did not stay retired long and continued writing and organizing. In 1906, she joined with William E.B. DuBois and others to further the Niagara Movement, and she was one of two African American women to sign “the call” to form the NAACP in 1909. 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.

Also known as Ida Bell Wells Ida Bell Wells-Barnett Iola

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.

Lee D. Baker, April 1996. (ldbaker at Source: Franklin, Vincent P. 1995 Living Our Stories, Telling Our Truths: Autobiography and the Making of African American Intellectual Tradition. 1995: Oxford University Press.


by James Allen

I am a picker. It is my living and my avocation. I search out items that some people don’t want or need and then sell them to others who do. Children are natural pickers. I was. I played at it when I collected bees in jars that were dusting blossoms in the orange groves surrounding my family’s home, or when I was wandering along swampy lakesides and hidden banana groves and found caches of stolen liquor or mossy old canoes.

My father would bring home bulging canvas sacks stenciled with bank names, bags of copper pennies or weighty half dollars and we kids would sit around the mounds of coins as if around a camp fire and shout bingo sounds when we found an S penny or silver fifty cent piece. At fourteen years of age, I used those coins to run away, searching for the lush drifting continent that existed only in my mind, where the people spoke in cryptic tongues, and feasted on honey and sling-shotted gem-feathered birds, sleeping at ease under open skies. I never found that place, but the police found me and shipped me back home. Picking, I guess, is a kind of extenuation of that search.

Once, unthinkably near to our house, in a deep, waxy green grove, I followed a path to the mildewed shack of an unshaven, alcoholic hermit. He made fantastic drip paintings on a portable turntable that splattered pure liquid color outwards like sun rays. Years later a taxicab pulled up to the curb in front of our house and rolled the old man out on to the street like a duffle bag of dirty laundry. He lay still, good as dead. This was my first grappling with the concurrence of beauty and pain, art and the hidden.

Mothers don’t counsel their sons to be pickers. No adult aspires to be called a picker. In the South it is a pejorative term. He is thought to be a salvage man, lowly and ignorant, living hand to mouth, maybe a thief that doubles back at night and steals what couldn’t be bought outright for pennies. I have tried hard to bring some dignity to the work, traveling countless roads in my home state, acquiring things that I thought were telling – handmade furniture and slave-made pots and pieced quilt tops and carved walking sticks. Many people who sell me things are burdened with their possessions, or ready for the old folks home or pining for the grave. Some are reluctant sellers, some eager. Some are as kind and gentle and welcoming as any notion of home, some are mean and bitter and half crazy from life and isolation. In America everything is for sale, even a national shame. Till I came upon a postcard of a lynching, postcards seemed trivial to me, the way second hand, misshapen Rubbermaid products might seem now. Ironically, the pursuit of these images has brought to me a great sense of purpose and personal satisfaction.

Studying these photos has engendered in me a caution of whites, of the majority, of the young, of religion, of the accepted. Perhaps a certain circumspection concerning these things was already in me, but surely not as actively as after the first sight of a brittle postcard of Leo Frank dead in an oak tree. It wasn’t the corpse that bewildered me as much as the canine-thin faces of the pack, lingering in the woods, circling after the kill. Hundreds of flea markets later a trader pulled me aside and in conspiratorial tones offered me a second card, this one of Laura Nelson, caught so pitiful and tattered and beyond retrieving – like a child’s paper kite snagged on a utility wire. The sight of Laura layered a pall of grief over all my fears.

I believe the photographer was more than a perceptive spectator at lynchings. The photographic art played as significant a role in the ritual as torture or souvenir grabbing – a sort of two-dimensional biblical swine, a receptacle for a collective sinful self. Lust propelled their commercial reproduction and distribution, facilitating the endless replay of anguish. Even dead, the victims were without sanctuary.

These photos provoke a strong sense of denial in me, and a desire to freeze my emotions. In time, I realize that my fear of the other is fear of myself. Then these portraits, torn from other family albums, become the portraits of my own family and of myself. And the faces of the living and the faces of the dead recur in me and in my daily life. I’ve seen John Richards on a remote county road, rocking along in hobbyhorse strides, head low, eyes to the ground, spotting coins or rocks or roots. And I’ve encountered Laura Nelson in a small, sturdy woman that answered my knock on a back porch door. In her deep-set eyes I watched a silent crowd parade across a shiny steel bridge, looking down. And on Christmas Lane, just blocks from our home, another Leo, a small-framed boy with his shirttail out and skullcap off center, makes his way to Sabbath prayers. With each encounter, I can’t help but think of these photos, and the march of time, and of the cold steel trigger in the human heart.


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