On this day in 1893, a young Ida Bell Wells stood before an audience and gave words to an unspoken horror.
She was just 30 years old and not yet the accomplished speaker she would later become. But her searing speech, “Lynch Law in All Its Phases,” has gone down in history.
“I am before the American people today through no inclination of my own,” she began, “but because of a deep seated conviction that the country at large does not know the extent to which lynch law prevails in parts of the Republic.”
Wells would go on to speak about the brutality and inhumanity of race lynching — at a time when most of the country preferred to look the other way.
She had been invited to speak at the “Monday Lectureship” at the Tremont Temple Baptist Church in the Beacon Hill area of Boston.
That pulpit was perhaps the most visible and prestigious place to share her message. The Tremont Temple was among the first racially integrated churches in the country and the locale for a number of anti-slavery lectures —the well-known abolitionist Wendell Phillips had spoken there the week after Lincoln’s assassination.
On this day in 1893, Well told how her eyes had been opened to the reality of vicious and ingrained racism. She talked about how she had grown up in the South and intended to stay there, believing that with rising wealth and education — “the doctrine of self help, thrift and economy” — Blacks would be accepted into the wider American culture.
She saw her mission as a journalist and newspaper owner of the Memphis Free Speech newspaper as central to that process, as she shared information that would educate and improve the lives of her people.
But everything changed the previous March, when a brawl outside a store in the Memphis neighborhood known as “the Curve” led to the wounding of two white police officers.
Three Black men, including a close friend of Wells, Tom Moss, were taken into police custody. Under police “protection,” the three men were tortured and lynched and, as Wells put it, “found in an old field horribly shot to pieces.”
Wells did not spare any heart wrenching details. Moss, she said, had “begged for his life, for the sake of his wife, his little daughter and his unborn infant.” His last word to his tormenters were: “If you will kill us, turn our faces to the West.”
Those events, which became known as the People’s Grocery Lynchings, marked a turning point in her life. As Wells put it:
“I have no power to describe the feeling of horror that possessed every member of the race in Memphis when the truth dawned upon us that the protection of the law which we had so long enjoyed was no longer ours; all had been destroyed in a night, and the barriers of the law had been down.”
Wells left the South and resettled in Chicago, where she continued her journalism and made the campaign against lynching her life’s work. She investigated dozens of horrifying cases, conducted countless interviews, collected reams of data, and used her own insubstantial funds to publish her findings.
It was an uphill battle. Most of her editorials and articles were published in the Black-owned press, only occasionally picked up by white-read publications.
Wells wrote books, organized boycotts, and importantly, used her public voice to stand before audiences, explaining in her own words why this cause mattered.
She made her case at large conferences and in modest church basements. She delivered dozens of lectures nationally and internationally, helping turn the tide against the atrocity of lynching with the impassioned force of her words.
There are six speeches by Wells in the Speaking While Female Speech Bank. Included are her 1898 remarks to President William McKinley when she went to the White House to meet with him and plead for federal response to a lynching in South Carolina, and for compensation for the victim’s widow and children.
She told McKinley that in the previous twenty years, some 10,000 Black American citizens had been lynched.
“The way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth on them.”
Wells passed away in 1931. For decades her work was largely overlooked. But in recent years that’s changed, and in 2020 she was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize special citation for her journalism.
At the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, one of her most enduring lines is emblazoned on the wall: “The way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth on them.”
Thank you, Ida B. Wells.
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