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Ida B. Wells’ Power of Good Communication Skill

Communication is the instrument by which injustices are remedied. It involves much more than just talking about an issue, anyone and everyone does that. The gravity of message must be clearly understood and the receiver(s) of the message must feel compelled to action or the issue in question cannot be remedied. The communicator must strike the delicate balance necessary so that people of all educational levels and backgrounds understand the importance of the message. They also must have the means to relay this message to a broad audience. Great oratory skills are imperative but if the message is not understood or fails to reach the masses, nothing significant happens, the ‘if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it’ scenario. There are relatively few people in history that were in the right place at the right time, had developed the necessary skills and had the courage to effect change on a broad scale. One of those is Ida B. Wells. Both black persons and woman in the nineteenth century were thought of as lesser members of society yet Wells, a black woman, through her communicative skills and courage emerged to be one of the great communicators of her or any time.

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Ida B. Wells, born into slavery in 1862, was a respected journalist and an outspoken activist who championed racial equality leading efforts to illuminate and eradicate the lynching of black men in the South. Wells, a preeminent spokesperson for civil rights long before the Civil Rights Movement, contested segregation laws more than half a century prior to Rosa Parks’ famous bus incident in the 1950’s. Because she was a black female, much of her words were either left undocumented or were suppressed by the white media establishment. However, her efforts to communicate were so intense and broad-ranging that enough evidence remains of her militant, unabashed actions. Wells was a fearless heroine who championed civil liberties at a time when the majority of the country was fighting against her.

Wells’ parents, Jim and Elizabeth Wells, instilled in her a positive, goal-oriented attitude and an interest in politics. After his emancipation, her father became a member of a political organization dedicated to black causes, the Loyal League, where he openly campaigned for black politicians (Sterling, 1988, p. 65). Mr. Wells’ passionate interests regarding racial injustices were a strong influence on his daughter as was her mother’s devotion to religion and a staunch work ethic. Both parents also stressed the value of education. More than 90 percent of emancipated black people were illiterate following the Civil War years. The freeing of the slaves allowed for the education of blacks. According to her autobiography, Wells said of attending Shaw, “our job was to go to school and learn all we could” (Duster, 1970, p. 9). Throughout her years at Shaw, Wells was dismayed by the fact that the college contained no books either written by or pertaining to blacks. This, along with her parents’ influences, would be a driving force in her life as she sought to produce meaningful material to the people of her community. After her parents died, an aunt, who lived in Memphis, encouraged her to move there in 1883. She did and began teaching in the city schools the following year (Sterling, 1988, p. 67).

Soon after arriving in Memphis, a racial incident caused Wells to become a writer and an activist. On May 4, 1884, while riding on a train to work, the conductor asked Wells to relocate from the front of the train to the back. She refused to comply and it took the conductor and three other men to physically remove her. Instead of moving, she got off the train and immediately hired an attorney when she returned home (Duster, 1970, p. 18). Wells won $500 in the suit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Company but in 1887, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision. The victory for Wells was found in the publicity surrounding the event as it was the first lawsuit that challenged the prevailing separate but equal way of thinking in the South at that time and encouraged black people to stand up for their rights. Spurred on by the excitement among the black community following the lawsuit, Wells began a weekly column. “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” (Duster, 1970, pp. 23-24). Soon, Wells’ writing began appearing across the country in major black newspapers.

As Wells traveled throughout Tennessee, she witnessed the dreadful way blacks were subsisting. This impassioned her writing voice and she began addressing the bigger issue of inequalities and discrimination including the lack of opportunities for equal education and the imbalance of economic resources (Sterling, 1988, p. 75). In 1891, Wells was fired from her teaching job because of her scathing editorials condemning the Memphis School Board of Education and the white establishment for their persistent subjugation tactics regarding black students (Diggs, 1995, pp. 136-137). Wells went on to become the editor and part owner of the Free Speech and Headlight, a Memphis newspaper, in 1889, which enabled her to speak out to an even greater degree against the injustices she saw occurring all around her.

In 1892, the practice of lynching touched Wells in a very personal way. In March 1892, the ‘Lynching at the Curve’ took the lives of three friends of Wells; Calvin McDowell, Henry Stewart and Thomas Moss. These three black men opened a grocery store across the street from a white-owned grocery store which, before the black store opened, had been the only store in town. The citizens of the town, a majority of which were black, switched to the new store which angered the white owners who then organized a violent mob so as to force black owners to leave. Having been warned that a white mob was assembling to drive them out, the black men took up arms and stayed inside their store. When three trespassing white men broke in, they were shot and wounded. The local, white-owned, newspaper’s account of the story misrepresented the facts stating that “Negro desperadoes had shot white men” (Sterling, 1988, p. 78). Fueled by hardened bigotry and sensationalistic rhetoric, a second mob broke into the jail, kidnapped the black men, beat and then lynched them. Wells’ response to the brutal murder of her friends was via her column in which she directed the black population in Memphis to vacate the city. “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” (Sterling, 1988, p. 80). Within two months, more than six thousand black people had moved and those that didn’t boycotted white businesses.

Following this incident, Wells’ writing became even more scathing in its tone and concentrated on the practice of lynching. She began to give speeches and to organize the black community in an attempt to bring an end to the practice. At one of her speeches given to a group of black women’s organizations in 1892, Wells was handed $500 to complete and publish a comprehensive study regarding lynching. Wells started her study by investigating the reasons given by the whites for lynching blacks and found that black men were charged then summarily hung, burned to death or shot for trivial matters such as stealing hogs, late in paying a debt, public drunkenness, testifying in court and disrespecting whites. The most common charge was for rape. Many black men were lynched simply because they were accused of raping a white woman. “Decrying the sexual double standard at the root of America’s race war, Wells recognized the issue as one embedded in cultural and sexual stereotypes of black men, as well as conventional and often false notions of white womanhood” (Braxton, 1999, p. 101).

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During Wells’ investigation, she discovered evidence in most of the rape cases indicating the relationships between black men and white women were consensual. If the white woman was found out or simply felt ashamed and wanted retribution against the black man, all she had to do was accuse him and that was enough for arrest and conviction. Wells’ findings infuriated the white community and a mob threatened her life and destroyed her newsroom office while she was out of town. She simply moved to Chicago and continued her efforts unabated. Wells viewed lynching as an act of repression, both economically and politically noting how gender and race are “manipulated by patriarchal structures” (Carby, 1997, p. 334). Lynching, Wells argued, is “an institutionalized practice supported and encouraged by established leaders of the community and the press they influenced” (Carby, 1997, p. 334). Wells further stated that, “lynching is not a crime of passion, instead, the lyncher uses the Black body and the Black life as a medium, upon and through which he transmits an economically motivated, political message” (Davis, 1995, p. 83).

Wells sailed to Britain in 1893 giving anti-lynching speeches and meeting with government officials for two months. She found that British women were more progressive and better organized so she encouraged her readers to join or start civic associations. Wells started the London Anti-Lynching Committee then came back to the U.S. to form women’s clubs in Boston and Chicago. On her second trip abroad, Wells took with her the ‘Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States, 1892-1894,’ an expansion of her earlier studies documenting the sad practice of American lynching. Wells was careful to obtain all of her statistics from white sources so as not to taint the report’s credibility. In 1894, the Chicago Tribunal alone reported 197 occurrences of lynching. Consistent with earlier findings, two-thirds were for petty crimes such as theft or fighting and about one-third was for rape. The charges were rarely, if ever substantiated and the victims of this vigilantism were not allowed to present a defense (Duster, 1970, p. 222).

Wells’ legacy is presenting the truth from an ugly period in American history to a wide audience. Her life work is of great historical significance as she was one of the first persons to engage in the fight of equality and helped lay the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement to come. In her 1928 autobiography, Wells stated that “the history of this entire period which reflected glory on the race should be known. Yet most of it is buried in oblivion and so, because our youth are entitled to the facts of race history which only the participants can give, I am thus led to set forth the facts” (Duster, 1970, p. 5).

Wells died on March 25, 1931 leaving behind a heritage of dedication, activism and hope for a better future for blacks. Her accomplishments are magnified given her outspokenness in the social context of that time period. This courage of conviction gave strength to those that would follow in her footsteps. Wells carried her message regarding the horrors and facts surrounding the practice of lynching and other injustices blacks faced throughout the U.S. and Britain and engaged in a constant effort to inform and organize. Wells’ immense and important contributions to civil liberties as an activist, writer, organizer and social researcher place her as one of American history’s most remarkable and vibrant figures.

Works Cited

Braxton, Joanne M. “Crusader for Justice: Ida B. Wells.” African American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays. William Andrews (Ed.). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Carby, Hazel V. “On the Threshold of Woman’s Era: Lynching, Empire and Sexuality in Black Feminist Theory.” Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation and Postcolonial Perspectives. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti & Ella Shohat (Eds.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1997.

Davis, Simone W. “The ‘Weak Race’ and the Winchester Political Voices in the Pamphlets of Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers. Vol. 12, N. 2, (1995).

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Diggs-Brown, Barbara. “Ida B. Wells-Barnett: About the Business of Agitation.” A Living of Words: American Women in Print Culture. Susan Albertine (Ed.). Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1995.

Duster, A. (Ed.). Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Sterling, D. Black Foremothers. New York: The Feminist Press, 1988.

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