At long last, the great Ida B. Wells has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize. The board of the Pulitzer has given a special posthumous citation to the women’s rights activist, investigative journalist and newspaper editor — noting “her outstanding and courageous reporting” on the crime of lynching.
Wells was clearsighted about the horrors of lynching at a time when most of the country looked the other way.
In addition to her journalism, her most effective tool for social change was public speaking.
Drawing on her own carefully reported and researched data, she made her case at large conferences, in meeting halls, and in modest church basements. Wells delivered dozens of lectures nationally and internationally, helping turn the tide against the atrocity of lynching with her impassioned words.
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the right of truth upon them.”
On February 13, 1893, in a speech she called “Lynch Law in All its Phases,” delivered at the Tremont Temple in Boston, she challenged her audience: “Do you ask the remedy? A public sentiment strong against lawlessness must be aroused. Every individual can contribute to this awakening.”
Wells endured harassment and financial hardship. Death threats drove her from Memphis in 1893. She made her home in Chicago, where she continued her work as a reporter, writer, organizer and speaker until her death in 1931.
The Pulitzer Prize dates back to 1917. That it took the Pulitzer committee more than a century to recognize her journalistic contribution speaks volumes.
Today there is finally greater awareness of this disgraceful, under-explored chapter in our nation’s history. That’s due in no small part to the activism of Bryan Stevenson, who created the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama — which tells the story of lynching and commemorates its victims.
Last fall I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, where a quote from Wells gets prominent display: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
Our thanks to Ida B. Wells — and all the other journalists who, with their intrepid work, turn the light of truth upon injustice.
Here are four speeches by Wells from the archives of The Speaking While Female Speech Bank:
- “Lynch Law in All its Phases” — 1892
- “Remarks to President McKinley” — 1898
- “This Awful Slaughter” — 1909
- “Lynching, Our National Crime” — 1909
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