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"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." ~ James Baldwin
"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Our country's national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. 


An outspoken crusader against lynching and one of the founders of the NAACP, Ida B. Wells-Barnett was born July 16, 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, 35 miles southwest of Memphis. She attended a local Freedman's School which is now Rust College, but dropped out to support her younger brothers and sisters by teaching after their parents died of yellow fever. She earned $30 per month although white teachers in the area were paid $80. With three younger sisters, she soon moved to Memphis where she taught and attended summer classes at Fisk University.

In 1884 she refused to move to a "Jim Crow" car on a Chesapeake & Ohio train, and was dragged from the train by the conductor and two other men while white passengers cheered. She sued the railroad and was awarded $500 in damages; the decision was overturned by the Tennessee State Supreme Court.

While teaching, she began to write about race relations for the Free Speech and Headlight, a Memphis anti-segregation newspaper, and other publications. She later became editor and co-owner of the paper. In 1892 while she was in Natchez selling newspaper subscriptions, a local grocery store owned by three African American men was attacked by white men who were resentful of its success. The owners defended the store and were arrested for shooting three of the invaders. Once in jail, they were taken out and killed.

Mrs. Wells-Barnett wrote about the lynching, and her articles appeared in newspapers across the country. She also urged African Americans to leave Memphis or, if they stayed, to boycott white businesses. She began to research lynchings and published a pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases setting forth her finding that most were a result of minor infractions of the law or to eliminate business competition. Few were in response to rape, despite the popular belief, and she stated that most inter-racial sex was consensual. While on another out-of-town trip, the offices of the Free Speech and Headlight were destroyed, and instead of returning to Memphis she settled in Chicago.


With other leaders such as Frederick Douglass, she organized a boycott of the Chicago World's Fair and continued her research, publishing The Red Record. She wrote for the Chicago Conservator, the oldest African American newspaper in the city, and in 1895 married its former editor, Ferdinand L. Barnett, an Assistant State Attorney. 

While raising a family of four children, she continued to crusade against lynching, traveling throughout the United States and Great Britain. She also worked to improve living conditions in Chicago, and with Jane Addams blocked the segregation of the city's schools. In 1909 she was one of two African American women to sign "The Call", leading to the founding of the NAACP. 

"I had an instinctive feeling that the people who have little or no school training should have something coming into their homes weekly which dealt with their problems in a simple, helpful way... so I wrote in a plain, common-sense way on the things that concerned our people."

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