More Lesson than Commemoration: The 153rd Birthday of Ida B. Wells

Dr. Paula Giddings, author of Ida: A Sword Among Lions, discusses the significance of the life and work of Ida B. Wells for today’s struggles


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JARED BALL, PRODUCER, IMIXWHATILIKE: What’s up, world. Welcome to another edition of I Mix What I Like here at the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

Today, July 16, marks the 153rd birthday of the legendary Ida B. Wells. To honor her and the political lineage she represents we spoke briefly with one of her more prominent biographers, Dr. Paula Giddings. Giddings is a book editor, journalist, and professor of Africana studies and author of several books, including a brilliantly written history of Ida B. Wells, Ida: A Sword Among Lions.

She joined us at her office at Smith College. This is what it looked like.


BALL: Okay. Prof. Giddings, again, thank you for joining us. If we could, let’s just have–start a conversation with you telling us about Ida B. Wells. Who was Ida B. Wells, and maybe what would you like us to know about Ida B. Wells versus what is known of her?

PROF. PAULA GIDDINGS: Well, there’s so much to know about her. But she is born in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and evolves really into I think one of the most important leaders that we’ve had.

She becomes known as an anti-lynching activist but she also does other things as well. Once she gets to Chicago she starts a settlement house. She’s a co-founder of the NAACP. She creates some of the first women’s suffrage organizations in Chicago that are just instrumental in getting people elected. Like for example, Oscar De Priest and others. So she’s quite a figure.

What one of the things I most admire about her is that I think we can give her credit for being the leader of maybe the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. And with her anti-lynching campaign.

BALL: Can we start there for a second? There’s at least two parts of that that I’d like you to touch on. What was it that she actually uncovered in this anti-lynching campaign? Some of the myths that she uncovered and helped expose in terms of the actual underpinnings or the reasons for these lynchings. And then in terms of what you just said about her being a leader of the modern civil rights movement, if you could also take us back and recount for us her pre-Rosa Parks actions.

GIDDINGS: Ida B. Wells comes of age in the reconstruction period. And this is the period when lynchings become–begin to really become to be racialized. And more and more blacks, men and women, are being lynched.

Lynching is a part of the DNA of the USA. It really starts in the Revolutionary War period. But after the Civil War it really becomes racialized. And the reason why so many lynchings went sort of with impunity unpunished is because it was charged that black men were running rampant, they are free now, and running rampant and raping white women. And nothing, you know, made a Confederate blood boil more than this. And so these charges ended up with people at the end of, at the end of a rope or killed in mob fashion.

And a lot of people didn’t know, even blacks didn’t know quite what to make of these charges. They were new. What also was going on was a lot of black people that no one had seen before were coming in from the countryside to the cities because of what was happening economically. And many leaders just sort of wondered what was happening.

What Ida Wells did, and this is another significant thing about her, Jared, is that she becomes an investigative reporter. She’s already a journalist. She has a newspaper. She co-owns a newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee. And she begins to, particularly after a friend of hers, a close friend of hers was lynched in 1892 in Memphis, Tennessee, who she knew to be an extraordinary man, an extraordinary citizen, and who certainly wasn’t guilty of any crime. She begins–she knows that these charges are wrong about him, and she begins to wonder about other lynchings, as well. So she actually goes on the road and she documents and talks to witnesses and reads newspaper articles, and uses something that’s very new in this period, something called statistics, in which she begins–with the new social sciences emerging.

So she begins to document that these lynchings are not taking place because of rape. They’re really taking place to keep black people down. Property is often taken after this. And she also says, well you know, what’s really going on now–there are some liaisons going on between black men and white women, but they’re voluntary.

BALL: Which makes the Confederacy even more angry, I would think, than rape, right? I mean–in that illogic, right?

GIDDINGS: [That’s] really get somebody crazy now, right. And so she goes on–so she goes on that campaign. But of course at the tip of the spear is our stereotypes about black men and black women. Of stereotypes around race and violence. And she also understands, and she’s really one of the first to understand, because the press changes in this period of time, where they begin to actually criminalize people. Where they take citizens who are good citizens, and begin to make, characterize them as criminals.

So she understands that there’s something else going on here. There’s a criminalization going on, there are false charges going on. She understands that you have to deal with this rape issue, which a lot of people didn’t want to deal with, in order to unwind a lot of those stereotypes. Including against black women, who of course are seen in this period as, perceived as promiscuous. One of the reasons black men are supposedly raping white women, because white women are kind of innocent and they have an allure, whereas black women are promiscuous and difficult to be satisfied, and all that.

BALL: So but in reality it was, as you mentioned, it was consensual liaisons. And then primarily the lynchings were also meant to blunt economic organization and activity of the black community. That was, if I understood you correctly, if I remember the history in your book correctly, that was the primary–even moreso than the sexual encounters, the primary reason for the lynchings and the violence itself, the terrorism itself.

GIDDINGS: Absolutely. What she was saying, in so many words, no good deed is going unpunished with black people.

And this is important because of the–she breaks through the ideas of the day that if someone has been lynched, they must have done something wrong. Maybe they’re not doing what someone says they are, but they must be criminals. Booker T. Washington used to say no graduate of Tuskegee ever got lynched. That used to drive her crazy.

So she’s really unwinding so much around this. And so she’s saying that, you know, all this idea of good behavior, of uplift, it has limitations. It’s not going to save you. It’s not going to save you from the exploitation and the violence of the South. So you might as well forget, not worry about that so much, and mobilize, and take our destiny in our own hands, which she does.

BALL: So if I can–just to, just to put a bow on it, black oppression is not the response to black behavior. It is, in other words, the oppression of black people is not, does not generate, is not generated by the behavior of black communities themselves.

GIDDINGS: In fact, some times just the opposite.

BALL: Exactly.

GIDDINGS: Because it’s threatening when blacks–this is a period of time when black achievement, very much like now, on certain levels is just incredible. But at the same time, lynching is increasing, just like now. Violence is increasing. So these things are happening at the same time. And she realizes that both things are happening. A lot of people are saying, you know, progress is inevitable. We’ve come so far, that was one. Then the other was saying, well, there’s no progress. There’s nothing. She is saying well, you know, the two things are happening simultaneously, and that’s how we have to strategize our response to them.

BALL: So Prof. Giddings, you mentioned Booker T. Washington in our last segment. And I’m wondering if we could use that as a segue to talk about the relationship that Wells had with other established black leadership of the day, particularly black male leadership of the day. And somewhat, as you’ve already done, if we could use that as a way to investigate the relationship black women activist leadership today are finding themselves vis-a-vis black men and the struggle, more broadly speaking. Could you give us maybe one or two examples from Wells’ experience that might speak to what’s happening today?

GIDDINGS: Wells’ anti-lynching campaign, Jared, begins in 1892. And by 1895, for example, she has traveled to the British Isles, she has gone from New York to California with her campaign. And it’s relatively successful.

When Frederick Douglass dies in 1895, it is really Wells who should have had the mantle of racial leadership. No one had done what she had done in this period. Not that there aren’t other very courageous people who had done things, but not on her level. And yet her gender, among other things, but especially her gender really kept her from her getting the acknowledgement from other black leaders, even though there was just no question.

One of the things, what happens in black nationalism which we know, is that race is conflated with maleness. So a racial issue, it’s about men, versus women. We see that, we see that happening still in our discourse. It’s hard to disgorge that. And she’s a victim of that as well.

When she becomes a co-founder of the NAACP, she becomes a co-founder after the fact. Because even though she was part of those founding committee meetings, she was excluded from being called as one of the Founding 40 in the beginning. In fact, whites had actually made her a part of the Founding 40, but it was W.E.B. Du Bois who excluded her. So she’s going through that issue.

BALL: I mean, that’s remarkable. Because as I’ve mentioned in the clip that I’m quoting from, you have made the point in the past that one of the things that separated Wells from many of her contemporaries in terms of black leadership was her connection specifically to the black community, and her feelings that the struggle itself needed to emanate almost exclusively from that community. And here it is that whites in the NAACP want to promote her leadership more than some of the leadership, including Du Bois, who as you’ve pointed out had their leadership and their prestige connected to their being welcomed by or desiring to be welcomed by the white community.

Could you say a word or two–it sounds wildly contradictory and yet perfectly consistent with this country’s history of race and struggle.

GIDDINGS: Indeed. And in addition to the gender issue, Wells, as you mention, Jared, is a firm believer in the ideas that their leadership, black leadership, should not be anointed by those outside of the race. That it had to come from within the race. It had to come from the bottom up, so to speak. She was an advocate, she liked Marcus Garvey for that same idea, because this is how he rose to leadership. Versus others, not to say that they weren’t, they didn’t have–they weren’t great leaders in different ways. But versus others like Booker T. Washington and Du Bois who are really anointed more by the white establishment.

And the reason why she thought about this–so she also had a class analysis, also, that went beyond the others. Because most of the leaders in this period of time, white and black, believed that there should be an elite, talented tenth, et cetera, who led the race and who led in the negotiations of race relations. Ida Wells said no, this is not going to be effective. We need to do things, we need to mobilize grassroots. And we need to mobilize across class in the black community.

And so when she directed things like trolley car boycotts in Memphis, Tennessee, that not only utilized the black–the entire black community for that, but also had economic implications. She saw what that could do.

When she advocated that blacks because of violence in Memphis actually go to Oklahoma and leave Memphis, these territories were opening up in this period and something like 20 percent of the black community actually leaves Memphis, leaving the city almost bankrupt. She understands that the grassroots movements are important. And it allowed her to use all kinds of and advocate all kinds of strategies. Certainly bus boycotts and migration.

But also, one thing she learned in Oklahoma was, out there in the wild west of Oklahoma in that period, that when black people were threatened with lynching what would happen in Oklahoma is black men would get their guns, their rifles, and band together and make sure it didn’t happen. And I think it’s out of that experience, one of my favorite phrases is, she said a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home.

BALL: That’s right. That’s right. And if you could just very quickly tell us–you know, I mentioned that she was also Rosa Parks before Rosa Parks, that this idea of not only boycotting but sitting down and refusing second-class seating is something that not only predates Rosa Parks in terms of buses, I know it had happened in I believe Harlem in the 1920s, but Ida B. Wells also does this on a train almost a century earlier.

GIDDINGS: That’s right. She–this is actually the beginning of her activist career in 1883, when at this point the trains–it was first class tickets and smokers’ class, which they called. And one of the things that would rile the black community is that they would buy first-class tickets, but be forced to sit in a smokers’ car, which at the point was, that point in particular, was just filthy. And more than that, which subjected particularly women to all kinds of crude behavior. It wasn’t a safe space to be.

And this was one of the things I think, just as was true with Rosa Parks and what happened there, this was one day that–this was thought out ahead of time. And one day she sits in the first class car. The conductor tells her to get up. She refuses to get up. And they finally have to extricate her, physically extricate her out of the seat, but not before–which I had great delight in retelling–she takes a big bite out of the conductor’s hand. Who later says in court, I bled freely. You think she looks like a lady here, but you know.

But what she does which is very important is that she takes this–and you can imagine now, she’s in her 20s. She takes this, the Chesapeake in Ohio Railway to court over this. And in the lower courts actually wins the suit. Which is very, very important to the movement at that time. She will lose it in the state Supreme Court. But this also makes her well known in this, in this era. And that’s a case that’s even cited in Plessey v. Ferguson case, which is very important, of course.

So this is how her career begins. And after the court case she’s asked to write articles for newspapers, and this is how she also develops as a journalist.

BALL: Well Prof. Giddings, thank you for joining us and helping us remember this very important woman and the very important traditions of struggle that she was emblematic of. And for speaking–and that continues to speak to us today. I thank you very much for helping us.

GIDDINGS: Thank you so much for doing a segment on her. She’s not talked about enough.

BALL: A-woman to that.

GIDDINGS: Thank you, Jared.

BALL: Thank you very much. Take care, okay.

GIDDINGS: You too.

BALL: All right.


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