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Ida B. Wells and the Campaign against Lynching

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how various factors contributed to continuity and change in the “New South” from 1877 to 1898

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative with the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) Narrative and the Ida B. Wells, “Lynch Law,” 1893. Primary Source to have students discuss the issues that African Americans faced after Reconstruction and through the beginning of the twentieth century.

In March 1892, trouble erupted in Memphis, Tennessee. That spring was supposed to bring a celebratory mood to the city that had just built the first bridge across the Mississippi south of the Ohio River. The bridge was intended to attract a railroad and enhance commerce. Instead, the city plunged into a violent racial episode that represented the realities of the lives of African Americans living in the segregated South.

A racially mixed group of boys was gambling at a local general store for white patrons when tensions flared and a father of one of the white boys whipped a black child. The owner of the general store, W.H. Barrett, went to a nearby competing grocery and violently confronted an African American clerk named Calvin McDowell and pistol-whipped him. McDowell fought back and bloodied Barrett. As a result, a white judge issued an arrest warrant for McDowell.

Deputies led a white mob to serve the warrant and confronted a large band of armed black men at the grocery store. Shots were fired and three deputies and some of the civilians were wounded in the exchange of gunfire. The deputies took a dozen African Americans into custody. Angry whites went on a rampage and rounded up dozens more African American men while ransacking their homes.

Because of the common practice in the South of white mobs seizing black men in jail and murdering them, the African American Tennessee Rifles state militia company surrounded the jail. They had to depart, however, when a white judge ordered them disarmed. The black men in the jail were left defenseless.

In the middle of the night, a white mob descended upon the jail and dragged out McDowell and two other black men named Thomas Moss and Will Stewart. All three were taken to a field where they were shot. Their bodies were mutilated and they were left to rot. Because African Americans did not enjoy due process of law or equal justice in the south, no indictments were issued for the murders.

Among the outraged African Americans who lived in Memphis at the time was journalist Ida B. Wells, who was in New York when the murders occurred. She had been born a slave in 1862 during the Civil War, and afterward her family became active in the Republican Party and the Freedman’s Aid Society. Wells was known for standing up to the humiliations of segregation.

Photograph of Ida B. Wells.

Ida B. Wells was a pioneer in the fight for African American civil rights. The photo is from about 1893.

In May 1884, Wells had boarded a train to Nashville with a first-class ticket, but she was told that she had to sit in the car reserved for African Americans. She refused and was forcibly removed from the train. She took her case to court, winning $500 before the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the verdict. After this ordeal, she began to write about the discrimination and racism that African Americans faced. She also began to speak out against the deplorable conditions of the segregated school where she taught, resulting in her losing her job.

Wells had been a close friend of Tom Moss and was infuriated by the senseless murders. When she returned to Memphis, she penned an inflammatory editorial in the local newspaper, the Free Press, that confronted whites directly about lynching. She described ten lynchings that had taken place that week across the South in Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. In the editorial, she wrote, “This is what opened my eyes to what lynching really was: an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized.”

Lynching had most often occurred in the West because some places lacked the protections of law and order, so mobs sometimes resorted to violence. The practice became widespread in the South in the 1890s, with between 80 and 160 African Americans lynched annually. White mobs often accused black men of raping white women and then proceeded to torture, hang, castrate, burn, and dismember the accused. Lynchings became public spectacles, with local whites forming large crowds to watch the brutality. Many whites believed these gruesome murders preserved the social order even as they grossly violated the natural and constitutional rights of African Americans.

Wells’s editorial made her a target of a white mob that destroyed the press and threatened her, forcing her to flee to New York City. She launched a campaign to publicize the horrors of lynching and began writing and lecturing about it across the country. She wrote two pamphlets, entitled A Red Record: Lynchings in the United States and Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases . In those works, she catalogued 241 lynchings. She exploded the myth that lynchings were carried out in retribution for black men’ raping white women, because the overwhelming majority of sexual relationships were consensual or merely a product of fear in white imaginations. She asserted that lynching was “that last relic of barbarism and slavery.”

The front page of a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors, Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

Ida B. Wells’ pamphlets, including this one, helped alert the public to the rampant lynching of African Americans in the South.

In 1898, Wells went to Washington, DC, to implore President William McKinley to institute reforms against lynching and discrimination. She continued to fight against the unfair treatment of African Americans and became a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

African Americans had won the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and basic civil rights protections during Reconstruction, but those temporary gains were negated by lynchings and other forms of violence, voting restrictions, and the rise of Jim Crow legislation that separated the races. Wells’s courageous writings and activism launched a decades-long crusade against the crime of lynching that was continually defeated by the political power of Southern Democrats in Congress. Although an anti-lynching bill was never passed by both houses of Congress, the activism of Wells and other African Americans was critical in raising awareness of the practice.

Review Questions

1. Before becoming a crusader for antilynching legislation, Ida B. Wells worked primarily as a

  1. slave
  2. grocery store owner
  3. Republican activist
  4. journalist

2. During the 1890s, many whites across the Deep South believed lynching was

  1. an unfortunate by-product of Jim Crow legislation
  2. immoral and should be made illegal
  3. needed to preserve the social order
  4. no different from any type of murder

3. The idea of lynching African Americans carried over from

  1. the humiliation, discrimination, and lawless violence inflicted on enslaved African Americans
  2. the legacy of the Fugitive Slave Act and slavecatchers
  3. the violent treatment of American Indians during the first part of the nineteenth century
  4. the time of Bacon’s Rebellion

4. To continue to advocate for African American equality, Ida B. Wells helped organize the

  1. African American Tennessee Rifle State Militia
  2. Freedmen’s Aid Society
  3. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
  4. African American newspaper The Free Press

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain how events in Ida. B. Wells’s life influenced her work in the anti-lynching crusade.
  2. Evaluate the impact of Ida B. Wells’s crusade for anti-lynching legislation.

AP Practice Questions

“As a final and complete refutation of the charge that lynching is occasioned by crimes against women, a partial record of lynchings is cited; 285 persons were lynched for causes as follows: Unknown cause, 92; no cause, 10; race prejudice, 49; miscegenation, 7; informing, 12; making threats, 11; keeping saloon, 3; practicing fraud, 5; practicing voodooism, 1; refusing evidence, 2; political causes, 5; disputing, 1; disobeying quarantine regulations, 2; slapping a child, 1; turning state’s evidence, 3; protecting a Negro, 1; to prevent giving evidence, 1; knowledge of larceny, 1; writing letter to white woman, 1; asking white woman to marry; 1 . . .

Is there a remedy, or will the nation confess that it cannot protect its protectors at home as well as abroad? Various remedies have been suggested to abolish the lynching infamy, but year after year, the butchery of men, women and children continues in spite of plea and protest. Education is suggested as a preventive, but it is as grave a crime to murder an ignorant man as it is a scholar. True, few educated men have been lynched, but the hue and cry once started stops at no bounds, as was clearly shown by the lynchings in Atlanta, and in Springfield, Illinois.”

Ida B. Wells, “Lynching, Our National Crime” address at the National Negro Conference, June 1, 1909

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. From the excerpt, a historian might conclude Wells believed

  1. the main reason blacks were lynched was that they had attacked white women
  2. lynching was a national atrocity, not only a Southern atrocity
  3. that because few educated men had been lynched, improving education was an effective solution to the problem
  4. that because the number of lynchings remained high, there was probably nothing Congress could do to address the problem

2. What would be a logical conclusion from the information Wells provided in the speech excerpted here?

  1. Southern states must provide better security for African Americans in jails.
  2. African Americans must apply to fill law enforcement positions so young men in their communities will have good role models.
  3. Federal protection of American citizenship is the remedy for lynching.
  4. It would be best for African Americans to move to northern states.

3. The viewpoints expressed by Ida B. Wells suggest that popular support for civil rights issues mainly came from

  1. Progressives in major cities
  2. the mainstream American press
  3. northern states
  4. the African American community

Primary Sources

Royster, Jacqueline Jones, ed. Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900. Boston: Bedford, 2016.

Wells, Ida B. The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader. New York: Penguin, 2014.

Suggested Resources

Bay, Mia. To Tell the Truth Freely: The Life of Ida B. Wells. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.

Brands, H.W. American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

DuRocher, Kristina. Ida B. Wells: Social Activist and Reformer. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Giddings, Paula J. Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching. New York: Harper, 2009

Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign against Lynching. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

White, Richard. The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017.

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