The Prophetic Fire of Ida B. Wells

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Feb 07, 2015

“None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.”
Cornel West in Race Matters (1994)

I don’t agree with everything Cornel West says or all of the ways he says it but when he speaks, he always makes me think. I heard him speak shortly after he wrote his well-known book “Race Matters” and I will never forget his powerful presentation. 

So when I saw that he recently wrote “Black Prophetic Fire” (2014), which is a dialog between him and an editor, Christa Buschendorf, I knew I had to read it. In it he and Buschendorf invite us to listen to their dialogue on six influential African-American leaders, four men and two women. It is one of those women I will be highlighting here.

Ida B. Wells was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on July 16, 1862, just before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. While visiting her grandmother, at age 16, she received word that a yellow fever epidemic hit her hometown and killed her parents and her 10-month-old brother. 

Over the next years she and her remaining siblings made their way to Memphis, Tenn. There her influence grew through a newspaper she co-owned and edited, the “Free Speech and Headlight,” where articles were published on racial injustice. When three of her friends were lynched on March 9, 1892, for trying to protect their store, Wells’ prophetic fire urged her to write these words in her paper for her Black readers, “There is therefore, only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which will neither protect our lives and property, nor give us a fair trial in the courts, but takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.”

After emphasizing the public spectacle of the lynching, more than 6,000 Blacks left Memphis; others organized boycotts of white-owned businesses. After being threatened by violence, she bought a pistol and later wrote, “They made me an exile and threatened my life by hinting at the truth.”  

Because of the murders of her friends, Wells researched and documented lynchings and the causes behind them. She started her anti-lynching campaign and spoke on the issue at various Black women’s clubs. She published her findings in a pamphlet titled "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases." This aggressive effort resulted in a bounty being put on her head and, while out of town, a mob destroyed the offices of her newspaper.

In spite of enormous opposition, Wells documented the horrors of lynching which, as West said, “occurred every two and a half days for over 50 years” and likens it to “the language of American terrorism.” But, as Wells said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” 

She did not mince words, “The nineteenth century lynching mob cuts off ears, toes, and fingers, strips off flesh, and distributes portions of the body as souvenirs among the crowd.” And we catch a bit of her prophetic fire when she says, “One had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or rat in a trap.”  

In addition to her crusade to abolish lynching, she became involved in efforts in Chicago to allow fellow-Blacks to join organizations like the YMCA, YWCA, gymnasiums, etc., which Wells considered “organizations of uplift” for those who belonged. For her, this cause also mattered because she knew without broad social acceptance, opportunities for her people would always be minimized. 

Because of the enormous opposition she faced as she battled the barbarous act of lynching, West describes Wells as “ … the most courageous Black organic intellectual in the history of the country.”  

We are all indebted to Ida B. Wells for her prophetic fire.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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