The fight for African-American Civil Rights has been a long and daunting process, spearheaded by powerful leaders who have mobilized the masses, organized demonstrations, and driven out hatred and bigotry day by day. One such leader was Ida B. Wells, fervently passionate, doggedly relentless, constantly at war for what she believed to be right — a personification of the African-American struggle for freedom. And while often snubbed in the history books for the more iconic Malcolm X or MLK, Wells’ staunch opposition to issues like lynching was a breath of fresh air for the Black community at the end of reconstruction, a time when free men were rounded up by the Ku Klux Klan to once more pick cotton, when the North lost interest in the plight of Black people, and when de jure segregation ran rampant. As such, her life and actions serve as a case study to further analyze three fundamental takeaways from the Black experience in America: first the everlasting struggle against the White dominated Power Structure embedded in law and government, second the pervasive existence of a template of oppression and marginalization against people who are different, and third the need for Black people to unite and mobilize collectively.
Contrary to popular belief, the war for African-American equality has been in no way fought on an equal footing; instead, White southerners have held the advantageous high ground, the United States Justice System that has institutionalized racism, segregation, and oppression. From “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), to the 3/5ths compromise signed into law at the Constitutional Convention, to the governor of Alabama’s “Kill the NAACP” campaign platform, it has become clear that Black people in this country not only fight against White people directly, but also against the municipal
policies and practices issued towards putting inequality in place. As such, Black communities are forced into fragmentation, as they must both battle oppressive legal policies in the courts and arm themselves against an increasingly aggressive elite with the capacity to break into jail (with the support of prison officials) and lynch three imprisoned Black men. And this is precisely what Wells contends is the problem facing African-Americans, the breakdown of law and order in support of White interests, that when you have supposedly impartial systems of government instead inserting themselves into the racial discourse, “the very foundations of government are imperiled.” When Black people are raised battling not only the prejudice and discrimination of Whites, but their very own government as well, they begin to “feel their twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Furthermore, Ida B. Wells’ public opposition to lynching raises concerns about a fear mongering template of oppression, marginalization, and intimidation used against people who are different, a template repeated and recycled to fit the “inferior” class of people in question at the time. However, the sentiment remains constant, that the best way to silence a minority into submission, is to make them see the consequences of rebellion. For example, in her book A Red Record (1895), Wells explores the “rape myth” used by lynch mobs as a means of justification for the brutal killing of African-Americans, victims that uncoincidentally had challenged or financially competed with White authority. These killings were used to put Black people “back into their place,” to make them think twice about the grandeur of freedom when their life — and the lives of those they loved — would be in jeopardy. Even worse, it was aimed at “the inevitable self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals which ever accompany… an atmosphere of contempt and hate,” to make Black people think their strive for freedom was vain or too costly, to be content with servitude and with nothing more, for “what need of higher culture for half-men.”
It is thus unsurprising that in response to Wells’ increasing calls for the mobilization of African-Americans, that a Klan led mob invaded and destroyed the offices of the Free Speech — a publication to which Wells frequently contributed — and threatened to kill her. This incident forced her to flee to Memphis to continue her crusade against lynching elsewhere, and highlights the omnipresent culture of intimidation and coercion aimed at extinguishing the flickers of rebellion that drive African-Americans in this country. Even today, with the rise of movements like Black Lives Matter and a revival of Black agency around the country, the White Power Structure’s suppression of minorities has manifested itself in police brutality, redlining, and the restriction of Black mobility to the “ghettos.” While Wells and other Civil Rights heroes have tremendously impacted the lives of people within their communities, their work represents the continuity of struggle and revolution ingrained in the Black experience.
Finally, Ida B. Wells brings into the limelight a third narrative, the reality that agency and unity are at the crux of Black progress, that without collective concern about the station of Black people in these United States, the entire community will continue to be at a disadvantage. To put it bluntly, Black individuals do not have the luxury to be occupied solely with themselves because no matter how high they individually climb the social ladder, they will always be relegated to second-class status without gaining legislative and ideological ground as a population. For this reason, they must unite as one community protecting the welfare of their own, rather than a divided organization plagued by internal political strife, who in the past had “given lynch law neither the investigation nor condemnation it deserves,” in favor of individual financial and social profit. In conjunction with the iron strong camaraderie present in Aretha Franklin’s Soul music and Ella Baker’s “Sweet Honey in The Rock,” to the NAACP’s grassroots, “passing of the hat” fundraising, to the SCLC’s community driven social and economic disruptions, Ida B. Wells makes clear that only through the consolidation of all Black agencies can the African-American community decisively wipe out the final, outdated remains of racism and brutality in America.
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