23 Mar 2011
From her humble beginnings in Holly Springs, Mississippi, no one guesses that Ida B. Wells will grow up to be a revolutionary investigative journalist. The circumstances of her childhood do not provide a solid platform upon which Wells can leap into a life of progressive thought and action. Her parents are both slaves and Wells is the oldest in a long line of eight siblings. It is fortuitous that the young woman’s father sees fit to educate her because Wells spends the rest of her life educating others about the plight of the newly emancipated Negro. When her parents and younger brother die of yellow fever Wells is forced to quit school and take on a paying position as a teacher and in this way supports the entire family. According to a timeline found on the Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation website, in 1879 “[a]n aunt invites Ida to move to Memphis, Tennessee where she quickly finds and accepts a teaching position in the Shelby County school system.” As Wells works as a teacher she also begins editing small scale church newsletters which whet her appetite for the idea of disseminating information directly into black homes.
One incident in particular not only provides an interesting first-person narrative for The Living Way newsletter, but also sparks Wells’ imagination to focus her writing on social change. Wells has been a victim of the Jim Crow laws while riding the train. Wells writes about the fact that she “had sued the railroad company for attempting to expel her from the ladies’ car” (Gates & McKay, 676). The topic is prescient, personal and interesting to her audience: it gives them a stake in the lawsuit’s outcome. (In 1887 the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned Wells’ former win against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad.) Using the pen name “Iola” (probably adopted from a Frances Harper novel entitled Iola Leroy) Wells’ train/court stories “were reprinted in newspapers throughout the country” (Gates, 676). Given a public forum in which to tell these stories increased Wells’ appetite for publicly renouncing obvious wrongs that occur on an hourly basis to the newly emancipated black contingent of U.S. citizenry. Her next topic of scrutiny is the one that will not only get her run out of her home base of Memphis but will forever connect her name to a cause: U.S. anti-lynching laws.
In her preface to Southern Horrors Wells seems to take up the pen with a heavy heart and gives an overview of her purpose: “Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against that sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so. The awful death-roll that Judge Lynch is calling every week is appalling, not only because of the lives it takes, the rank cruelty and outrage to the victims, but because of the prejudice it fosters and the stain it places against the good name of a weak race” (25-6). Writing about her experience with injustice on the train opens Wells’ eyes to an even more insidious and widespread injustice taking place around her; one that is sanctioned by law: the act of lynching. During these dark days mobs regularly gather to capture and hang someone from a tree whom they feel has committed an offense or broken a societal law. When Wells learns of the lynching of people she actually knows she begins to turn her considerable writing skills toward activism against lynching. Little does Ida B. Wells recognize that her decision to use the press in service of protecting the rights of her race and pointing the finger directly at offenders will set a groundbreaking precedent that would carry on within the ink of newspaper print for generations to come.
In order to understand the importance of Wells’ decision to make use of the press to bring to light social injustice, we must first get our footing in the rhetorical situation of her day. When Wells begins writing the United States has just undergone a little more than a decade of reconstruction after the Civil War. Yet simply because the blacks are no longer enslaved does not mean our nation’s troubles instantaneously disappear. “With slavery officially outlawed, the white south moved quickly to protect its interests by codifying the very white supremacist ideology that had undergirded the chattel slave system” (Gates, 543). Wells experiences the Jim Crow laws such as blacks and whites having to travel in separate train cars. In 1883 the U.S. Supreme Court rules that congress can regulate only state action regarding racial discrimination, not private action. In the years 1888-9 one hundred and sixty-three Negroes are lynched along with one hundred and forty-four whites. Disenfranchisement begins with the “Mississippi Plan.” According to information found in a timeline of African American history provided by the National Humanities center, in order “[t]o minimize the number of black voters, Mississippi institutes a literacy test, a poll tax, and the ‘grandfather clause’” and during the next two decades “most Southern states pass similar laws.”
Thirty-five years before Wells is born the first attempt to run a black newspaper is made by Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm. They run Freedom’s Journal for two years which then becomes The Rights of All which only lasts two more years. About forty-two years before Wells sets up shop, Frederick Douglass resolves to launch his own newspaper, The North Star. “In part Douglass wanted to prove that a black run newspaper could succeed; in part he needed a forum from which to express himself freely, without consulting his former mentors…”(Gates, 386). All of these shifting circumstances are morphing the social and political landscape in the day of Ida B. Wells. It was in 1889 that “Wells becomes part owner of the black-run Memphis newspaper, The Free Speech and Headlight and continues to write under the pen name Iola” (Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation). Wells runs and writes for the paper for three years before an incident occurs that will change not only Wells’ life, but her legacy forever.
According to the Wells Foundation timeline, on March 9th, 1892, “three friends of Wells—Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and William Steward—were lynched outside of Memphis. The three men owned and operated a store called the People’s Grocery, a business the competed successfully with a white-owned store nearby.” These incidents so shock and enrage Wells that she tears off an incendiary indictment, using her newspaper as a platform to strongly denounce the practice of lynching. She recognizes that Southern people will often say lynching is used as a punishment against black men that rape white women when Wells knows this to be an outright lie. Her first anti-lynching editorial uses such sure and strong language that it sends (probably the same) white mob into frenzy and they burn the news office to the ground. Ms. Wells is advised to never return to Memphis. A more direct form of censorship do not exist, yet the threat to life and limb do not dissuade Wells from her anti-lynching campaign. The timeline states: “Wells begins to investigate the lynching phenomenon from New York where she writes for the African-American newspaper, the New York Age. Her findings are complied and published in the fall in a story titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.
Some of the particulars of her findings written in the above book are as follows:
- That lynching may be claimed to be a punishment for rape, but many white women use the accusation of rape in order to cover up an affair or explain giving birth to a mulatto child.
- That though rape is often proffered as the reason for the lynching, any numbers of reasons (or none at all) have been given as sufficient to hang a person. Wells is fond of using lists and lines up lynching statistics for any given year. Beside the number of those lynched there is a reason given for that particular hanging. Some of the reasons on record are: no cause, unknown cause, mistaken identity, bad reputation, giving evidence, refusing to give evidence and unpopularity.
- That the white press is only making things worse.
- That “[t]here is little difference between the Antebellum South and the New South” (47).
- That “[t]he white man’s dollar is his god, and to stop this will be to stop outrages in many localities” (50).
As mentioned earlier, Wells has consequences occur due to her truth-seeking. Her business is burned to the ground and she cannot return to her adopted hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Yet Wells escapes with her life and from new posts up North she continues to write and rally against racism. She protests the lack of African American participation in the Chicago World’s Fair. She helps found the National Association of Colored Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In information found in the Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation timeline, in 1913 Wells “turn[s] her reformist energies towards winning the vote for all African-Americans; particularly women. She forms the first suffrage club for black women in the state of Illinois; the Alpha Suffrage Club.“ In 1931 Wells dies in Chicago, yet her creativity in using the medium of the newspaper as a tool for social reform sets the stage for decades of media pioneers to follow.
The activism and writing of Wells carries the country well into the Harlem Renaissance which lasted roughly from 1919-1940. “In particular, the second half of the decade witnessed an outpouring of publications by African Americans that was unprecedented in its variety and scope” (Gates 953). Harlem, New York appears during these years as the African American artistic capital of the world. Blacks begin to be published by the “establishment” publishers, the housing conditions are better than in the south and there is an explosion in every form of art from the writing of plays to the expansion of jazz, the celebration of dance and the emergence of new cultural and political goals. We can see Wells’ influence on men of the Renaissance who are eager to own and run their own African American newspapers. From Charles Johnson to Marcus Garvey, the new African fully exercises the power of the pen by disseminating information, collecting stories, poetry and artwork and relishing the power of creating their own propaganda. “Of these, the most important was almost certainly the Crisis, edited by the brilliant scholar…W.E.B. Du Bois…” (Gates, 955). Du Bois and Wells are connected through the NAACP: Wells helps found the organization and Du Bois launches the Crisis as a mouthpiece for the group. Just as Wells is forced to migrate northward in order to carry on her work, Du Bois also suffers negative consequences due to using printed media to further his leftist politics. The repayment for speaking his mind is “his forced retirement from Atlanta University in 1944 and his firing in 1948 by the NAACP from his position as director of special research” (Gates, 688). Wells’ anti-lynching campaign morphed into Du Bois’ anti-nukes campaign and the U.S. government tries to indict him as a “subversive agent.” Even though the charges do not stick, Du Bois kind of becomes a man alone on a desert island although this isolation does not deter him from speaking his truth.
There is a link connecting the times and people of the Harlem Renaissance to the age of modern African American journalism and his name is Thomas Fleming. Mr. Fleming is “the longtime executive editor of Reporter Publishing Company, Northern California’s leading chain of African American newspapers” (Millard). While the Harlem Renaissance proper is winding down on the east coast Mr. Fleming is gearing up for a life-long vocation in journalism in San Francisco. He is founding editor for the Reporter newspaper and for years writes, on average, three articles a week and in the spirit of Ida B. Wells, he tends to focus on human rights. Through his work with the newspaper Fleming has the opportunity to meet other men of letters that keep African American progress foremost in the writing of their day. Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and others are the types of prolific movers and shakers that inspire and influence the journalism of Fleming. One of his articles entitled “Marcus Garvey Comes to Harlem” provides historians with a direct link from early twentieth century newspapermen to those of more recent times. Yet our linking connections from Ida B. Wells to the Harlem Renaissance to Fleming would not be complete without one last backward glance to African American journalism during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s.
As Fleming is writing in San Francisco, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is writing about his experience as a pastor in the south and how he becomes a vocal advocate for the idea and practice of nonviolent resistance. Dr. King is influenced by Gandhi and shares his philosophy that “…no individual or group need submit to any wrong, nor need they use violence to right the wrong; there is the way of nonviolent resistance. This is ultimately the way of the strong man” (102). King brings our story full circle back to Memphis, Tennessee where he, another African American activist and writer, is being “punished” for having the guts to confront social problems in America. As Martin Luther King Jr. is being shot down at the Lorraine Motel in 1968 a newspaperman by the name of Earl Caldwell stands by his side. Just as Ida B. Wells has been witness to the lynching of her grocery store-owning neighbors, seventy-six years later Caldwell is a journalist witnessing the racial hatred and confusion that continues into the Age of Aquarius.
Civil Rights activists and journalists alike know that Caldwell covers the activities of the Black Panther party and is writing his pieces for the New York Times. According to information found through the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, Caldwell is the center of a mighty struggle between himself as a journalist keeping his sources confidential, and the federal government’s attempts to confiscate Caldwell’s personal notes and research. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. As Tiffany Shepard learned in her personal interview with Caldwell during her stint at Hampton University, the Supreme Court ruling “resulted in a landmark First Amendment decision on reporter’s rights to protect confidential sources. ‘The ruling was unanimous. The court ruled that the First Amendment protected a reporter’s information, notes and confidential sources, ‘said Caldwell, ‘and it protected the reporting process.’” Unlike all of the journalists examined previously in the paper, Earl Caldwell was never run out of town or out of business. It is some relief to see that with the passage of time and America’s tentative steps toward racial equality that Caldwell is still teaching and writing about civil rights. Bringing media all the way into the digital age, we can see from Earl Caldwell’s’ Facebook page that he “is writer-in-residence at the Robert C. Maynard Institute” mentioned earlier in this piece.
A Facebook page is a long way from the days of a small Negro newspaper co-owned by Ida B. Wells in 1889. By keeping her eyes open and her mind analyzing Wells is able to bring forth the discussion of race and rights and use journalism as a tool to bring these issues to the public. Wells set the precedent, and set it with such a high bar that her shoes are quite difficult to fill. Yet we see people step forth, people such as W.E.B. Du Bois during the Harlem Renaissance, Thomas Fleming bridging the gap and Earl Caldwell bringing us into the age of Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers during the Civil Rights era and beyond. Newspapers and in-the-moment journalism keep the world ever-present with the changing and prescient issues of our day. Thanks to Ida B. Wells, the tradition of truth-telling through journalism has been an exciting and often terrifying journey that all Americans are privileged to experience.
Gates, Henry and Nellie McKay. Introduction. A Red Record. By Ida B. Wells-Barnett. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. W. W. Norton and Company, New York: 676.
King, Martin Luther. Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story. Harper and Row Inc. 101-107.
Millard, Max. “Thomas Fleming, ‘Good Soldier’ of San Francisco’s Black Press, Retires from Sun-Reporter at 89.” Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco. 28 July 1997. www.sfmuseum.org/sunreporter/fleming.html.
Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. “The Caldwell Journals.” 2000. Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. Web. 23 Mar 2011.
Shepard, Tiffany. Interview with Earl Caldwell. National Visionary Leadership Project. 2006. http://www.visionaryproject.org/caldwellearl.
The Making of African American Identity. “Timeline: 1860-1920.” Volume II: 1865-1917. Jan 2006. National Humanities Center. 15 Mar 2011.
Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Preface. Southern Horrors. By Ida Be. Wells-Barnett. On Lynchings. Humanity Books, New York: 25-6, 47, 50.
Wells, Ida B. (family). Ida B. Wells Memorial Foundation. 22 April 2010. Web. 21 Mar 2010. http://www.idabwells.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article.