Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) was one of the top three leaders of the African-American struggle at the turn of the 20th century, but is almost unknown today. Why is that? That is a question Moonstone Arts Center founder Larry Robin asks as part of the “Ida B. Wells, Lynching and Trayvon Martin” project.
“The title is Ida B Wells and lynching,” explained Robin. “Because lynching isn’t about hanging; lynching is any action against an accused person by civilians without due process of the law. It’s not always hanging; it’s not always even killing — it’s an attack that is not supported by law.”
Wells-Barnett was born in Holly Springs, Miss., in 1862 — six months before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1892, while working as a journalist for Free Speech and Headlight, which she co-owned in Memphis, Tenn., three of her friends were lynched. When Wells-Barnett wrote about the lynchings, her newspaper office was burned down and she was run out of town. She later wrote, “They had made me an exile and threatened my life for hinting at the truth.”
According to the idabwell.com website maintained by her descendants, Wells-Barnett was an anti-lynching crusader; a women’s rights activist; a passionate crusader against racism; a journalist and teacher who spoke out on racial issues; a civil rights pioneer and one of the founders of the NAACP.
Wells-Barnett was a strong-willed individual who was unwilling to compromise her principles, and this put her in conflict with other leaders. She criticized the leadership of the women’s suffrage movement, including her friend, Susan B. Anthony, for not confronting the Jim Crow laws and lynching. She criticized Black male leadership for the same thing. W.E.B. DuBois asked her to “tone down” her criticisms, but Wells-Barnett refused to be intimidated and started to carry a gun after her friends were lynched, saying, “One had better die fighting against injustice than die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”
As “The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” Robin says, she is a role model for today. “And what happens with this, is because of Ida B. Wells the term ‘lynching’ has become a negative. It wasn’t before,” said Robin. “And so they don’t want to attach that term to Trayvon Martin, because all of a sudden you say, ‘Is that coming back? What is going on here?’
“Because lynching has its own dynamic, and people may say he wasn’t hung. No, he wasn’t, but some guy outside the force of the law went and killed him. And there is a rise of violence in America that’s vigilante-style violence. Today they justify it by saying ‘Oh, he’s a young thug.’ But it’s the same attitude that’s consciously permitted, although it may be unconsciously executed, but it’s all part of an attitude of keeping Black people in their place. But you talk about Mumia (Abu Jamal); or Trayvon Martin; or the guy that was dragged behind the truck till he’s dead or the gay guy in Laramie who’s tied to a fence — these are all contemporary lynchings, and they demand response now.”
“A Discussion on Ida B. Wells” with John Bracey, Paula Giddings and Sonia Sanchez takes place on Jan. 31 at 7 p.m. at District 1199C Philadelphia headquarters, 1319 Locust St. It is part of the “Ida B. Wells, Lynching & Trayvon Martin” project, which continues through March 3, produced by Moonstone Arts Center. For information, visit www.moonstoneartscenter.org/idabwells or call (215) 735-9600.