Paul Russell profiles rebellious leader Ida B. Wells.
The pen is mightier than the sword; there are few rebellious leaders for whom this is more apt than journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells who used the written word as her weapon of choice in the fight against the lynching of black people.
Wells received death threats, had to leave her home permanently but never faltered from the path of leadership towards a more democratic society.
Born into slavery on 16 July 1862 in Mississippi, Ida Bell Wells was forced to leave school at 14 after the untimely passing of her father and mother to a yellow fever epidemic – it fell on Wells to take care of her younger siblings.
Wells managed to attend college and found a job as a teacher, eventually moving to Memphis. In 1884 more than 70 years before Rosa Parks did the same thing, Ida Wells refused to give up her seat on a train.
Wells recalled the moment the conductor tried to forcibly remove her from the carriage to the smoking car: “The moment he caught hold of my arm, I fastened my teeth in the back of his hand. I had braced my feet against the seat in front and was holding to the back.”
Wells’ actions were ultimately unsuccessful as the conductor merely returned with greater force and she was duly removed.
Wells understood that her power as a leader wasn’t in the doors she could smash through, but in the pages of newsprint
It was perhaps at this point that Wells realised that she needed to take a different approach to achieve her aims, swapping physical rebellion for written rebellion. The conductor asking Wells to move was in contravention of the 1875 Civil Rights Act, and Wells won her initial lawsuit against the train company but this was later overturned.
At 27 years of age, Wells became co-owner of newspaper the Free Speech and Headlight. But it was in 1892 when Wells was 30 years old that her seminal moment as a leader came. Three men, Henry Stewart, Thomas Moss and Calvin McDowell, all co-owners of a grocery store were involved in a skirmish with white store owners.
A man was shot, and the three were put in jail before a lynch mob took matters into their own hands, breaking into the jail and murdering Stewart, Moss and McDowell.
After this lynching, Wells realised once more that physical force would be futile, and that there was a far more effective way to retaliate. Wells wrote: “There is nothing we can do about the lynching now, as we are outnumbered and without arms.
There is therefore only one thing left to do; save our money and leave a town which…takes us out and murders us in cold blood when accused by white persons.” From this pronouncement, many black people left Memphis.
Wells’ newspaper was subsequently destroyed whilst she was in New York, and with death threats against her, Wells was never able to return to Memphis, moving instead to Chicago.
From this moment, Wells became a prominent crusader against lynching, saying in a speech in Chicago in 1900: “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.
It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an ‘unwritten law’ that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal.”
Wells married attorney and journalist Ferdinand Barnett who was founder of Chicago’s first black newspaper in 1895, and they went on to have four children in addition to Barnett’s two sons from his first marriage.
But her marriage didn’t alter Wells’ devotion to the causes of women’s rights, civil rights and the abolishment of lynching, as she went on to create the National Association of Coloured Women and became chair of the Chicago Equal Rights league amongst other activities.
What Wells did as a rebellious leader was to carefully consider aims, current positioning and resources and tailor her approach effectively. She realised that to fight fire with fire in the traditional sense would be both counter-productive and dangerous.
Instead she utilised her skill as a writer to lead and inspire, encouraging others in a more subtle, intelligent way and in doing so, extending her reach as a leader considerably.
Wells understood that her power as a leader wasn’t in the doors she could smash through, but in the pages of newsprint that would be placed routinely onto the desks of presidents, in the articles that would peacefully fall into the hands of academics, scholars and the regular person riding the bus to work.
In short, Wells chose the most effective weapon she had at her disposal, her words, and went on to become one of the most famous rebellious leaders in history.