Editor’s Preface: Ida B. Wells was born enslaved in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862, one of eight children. Her mother was a cook and her father, the son of his master, was a carpenter, both trades that held them in good stead after the Civil War. Her father was active in Reconstruction politics and both her parents encouraged Ida to speak against injustice.
After the death of her parents during a yellow fever outbreak, she assumed the care of her younger siblings by teaching school, a job she disliked and never felt competent doing, as her own education was spotty. Indeed, as she never finished normal school, she was not qualified to be a teacher. As one of her biographers writes, “… her teaching career were positions teaching elementary school in isolated rural areas, to which she traveled by mule, returning home only on the weekend.” She wound up moving to Memphis with her two younger sisters and there she began to write for the local black church journals like The Living Way under the name Iola on what was called “women’s interests,” although she never confined herself to that. Her work soon became popular and controversial enough to have her dubbed by her reading public, “Iola, princess of the press.” She eventually became co-owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight, the black newspaper of the city.
Feisty, and with a gimlet eye out for racial injustice, Wells strenuously denounced segregated seating on railway cars; she even sued a rail company that discriminated against her. But she achieved her greatest fame writing exposes about the crime of lynching, inspired by the mob murder of three black businessmen in Memphis in March 1892, one of whom was a friend of hers. Her untiring research revealed that less than a third of all lynchings were caused by the salacious and sensationalized crime of rape and even here, many of the cases involved consensual sexual relations between white women and black men. Most blacks were lynched because they were successful or in some way an economic or political threat to Southern white male power. So relentless was Wells in her pursuit of truth in her articles about lynch that she was forced to leave Memphis for her own safety. Among her most important pamphlet/essays are Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892), A Red Record, (1895), Mob Rule in New Orleans: Robert Charles and His Fight to the Death (1900), and The East St. Louis Massacre: The Greatest Outrage of the Century (1917). One of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as well as the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), she was a militant activist of the first order.
The Essay of the Month is Wells’s “The Requirement of Southern Journalism,” originally delivered as a speech to the National Press Association, a black American organization. This piece is a call to action where Wells challenges black reporters and editors to practice a form of journalism worthy of aiding the race by rigorously publicizing racial crimes committed against blacks, even if this leads to threats and intimidation on the part of Southern whites. As she asserts: “If indeed ‘the pen is mightier than the sword,’ the time has come as never before that the wielders of the pen belonging to the race which is so tortured and outraged, should take serious thought and purposeful action. The blood, tears, and groans of hundreds of the murdered cry to you for redress; the lamentations, distress and want, of numberless widows and orphans appeal to you to do the only thing which can be done—which is the first step toward revolution of every kind—the creation of a healthy public sentiment.”
Wells died of kidney failure in 1931.
Delivered to the National Press Association and published in the Zion Church Quarterly in 1893.
Mr. President, Members of the National Press Association, Ladies and Gentlemen:
The conditions which led to a memorial to Congress and a visit to the President of the United States by this body still obtain in this country since last you met, the outrages which prompted that memorial have increased; the lyncher has become so bold, he has discarded his mask and the secrecy of night, has left the out-of-the-way village and invaded the jails and penitentiaries of our largest cities, and hung and tortured his victims on the public streets. Not content with this, Arkansas furnishes the spectacle of a woman vindicating her honor (?) by setting fire to a living being, who, as the flames lick his burning flesh, dies protesting his innocence to the crowd of 5000 that looked on and applauded the act in ghoulish glee. A fifteen year old girl in Rayville, Louisiana, suspected of poisoning a white family is promptly hung on that suspicion; three reputable citizens of Memphis, Tenn., were taken from the jail and shot to death for prospering too well in business and defending themselves and property; one of the journals which was a member of your organization has been silenced by the edict of the mob which declared there shall be no such thing as “Free Speech” in the South. Within the past two weeks, honest, hardworking, land owning men and women of the race have been hung, shot, whipped and driven out of communities in Texas and Arkansas for no greater crime than that of too much prosperity. Indeed one almost fears to pick up the daily paper in which it is an unusual thing not to see recorded some tale of outrage or blood, with the Negro always the loser. The President of the United States announces himself unable to do anything to stay this “Reign of Terror,” and the race in the localities in which these outrages occur are nearly always unable to protect themselves; the local authorities will not extend to them the protection they demand. The President and Congress have been petitioned, race indignation has vented itself in impassioned oratory and public meetings. But denouncing the flag as dirty and dishonored which does not protect its citizens, and repudiating the national hymn because it is a musical lie, has not stopped the outrages. Politics have been eschewed, civil rights given up, (rights which are dearer than life itself) and even life itself has been sacrificed on the altar of Southern hate, and still there is no peace. The assassin’s bullet and ku-klux whip is still heard and the sight of the hangman’s noose with an Afro-American dangling at the end, is becoming a familiar object to the eyes of young America.
If indeed “the pen is mightier than the sword,” the time has come as never before that the wielders of the pen belonging to the race which is so tortured and outraged, should take serious thought and purposeful action. The blood, tears and groans of hundreds of the murdered cry to you for redress; the lamentations, distress and want, of numberless widows and orphans appeal to you to do the only thing which can be done—and which is the first step toward revolution of every kind—the creation of a healthy public sentiment.
In the creation of sentiment, the Southern newspaper can not do much, but it can do something. One of the first requirements then of Southern Journalism is to have, wherever practicable, an organ on the ground. Scattered throughout the South are journals which for lack of capital and good business management fail to do the good they might. Some have gone into the profession not always because of a love for it, or the desire to reach a high standard, but for personal aggrandizement or political preferment. Their weekly advent creates no ripples upon the body politic, disturbs no existing condition and if they can secure the wherewithal to feed the press—are permitted to exist, until they die a natural death. If it could be established, a fearlessly edited press is one of the crying necessities of the hour. Such a journal, edited in the midst of such conditions as exist in the South, can better give the facts, than out of it, or than the press dispatches will do. True, such a one might have to be on the hop, skip and jump but the seed planted even though the sower might not tarry to watch its growth, can never die. At present only one side of the atrocities against a defenceless people is given, and with all the smoothing over is a bad enough showing. The press dispatches of March 9, heralded to the country that “three negro toughs who kept a low dive, fired upon and wounded officers of the law who had gone to arrest one of their number, and as a consequence two nights afterward had been lynched.” The Free Speech gave the facts in the case, exposing the rank injustice and connivance of the authorities with a white grocery keeper whose trade had been absorbed by these young colored men: how he set a trap into which they fell, and that although the wounded deputies were pronounced out of danger, these men were lynched in obedience to the unwritten law that an Afro-American should not shoot a white man, no matter what the provocation. Our paper showed the character of these men to be unblemished, gave the sketches and cuts of three as reputable and enterprising young men as the race afforded who were prospering in a legitimate grocery business; published a formal statement from our leading ministers addressed to the public; printed 2000 extra copies and mailed them to the leading dailies, public men and Congressmen of the United States. And so in part was counteracted the libel on these foully murdered men. How many such have gone down to a violent death without anything to chronicle the true facts in their case, will never be known. Besides, a respectful, yet firm demand for race rights is absolutely necessary among those whom they live, and through no agency can it so well be heard as the newspaper.
A prosecution of this work requires men and women who are willing to sacrifice time, pleasure and property to a realization of it; who are above bribes and demagoguery; who seek not political preferment nor personal aggrandizement; whose moral courage is strong enough to tell the race plainly yet kindly of its failings and maintain a stand for truth, honor, and virtue.
This is the greatest need of all among the masses of the South—the need of the press as an educator. Children of a larger growth, the masses of our people have never been taught the first rudiments of an education, much less the science of civil government. The vast army who make the industrial wealth of the South today have had neither the experience of slavery nor the training of the school-room, to teach them some valuable lessons, yet they are citizens in name, making history every day for the race. Some of them are seemingly content with their lot, but it is the contentment of ignorance in which the white landlord strives to keep them, by pandering in all ways to the most depraved instincts, and especially by the aid of liquor can exert the influence.
So imperative is the necessity for leading the race up to the clear heights of thought, then down into the valley of action, that if persecuted and driven from one place, we must set up the printing press in another and continue the great work till the evils we suffer are removed or the people better prepared to fight their own battles.
The Afro-American needs to be taught the power of union, to realize his own strength; how to utilize that strength to secure to himself his inherent rights as did the plebeians of Rome. He makes the money of the South, but has never been taught that a husbanding of resources will cease to enrich gigantic corporations at his own expense. Intelligently directed, by exercise of this power alone, the race can do much to bring about a change in race condition. The sudden withdrawal of the labor force of any one community, paralyzes the industry of that community. This is instanced in the communities where preventive measures are mused to keep the race, when outrages perpetrated have moved them to leave. The Free Speech advised the people of Memphis that if they could do nothing else, after the atrocious lynching there, they could have their money and get away from a city whose laws afforded no protection to a black man. They adhered so strictly to the advice that in six weeks the real estate dealers, rental agents, dry goods merchants complained—several firms went to the wall—and the superintendent, secretary and treasurer of the electric street railway company called on us at different times to know why colored people had stopped riding on the cars. They said they had recently spent half a million dollars to put in electricity, much of which had gone in colored people’s pockets; that it was a matter of dollars and cents to them, because if they did not look after the company’s income they would get somebody who would. “Then you acknowledge that the patronage of colored people keeps your business running?” “Yes, to a certain extent,” was the reply, and then they voluntarily promised that there should be and was no discrimination on the cars; if such was reported it would be at once corrected, etc. For once in the history of Memphis, the colored people were united and the effect was wonderful. It was the silent forceful protest which was felt as nothing else had been felt.
The race as such must be taught the value of emigration, both to relieve the congested condition which obtains, and to better their own condition by coming in contact with newer ideas, higher standards and people who have the desire to be something. They must be led to go out in the boundless west where they will develop the manhood which lies dormant with nothing to call it into exercise. The Afro-American must be taught that there is one potent, never-failing method of dealing with prejudice; when you touch a white man’s pocket, you touch his heart and his prejudices all melt away. Before the almighty dollar he worships as to no other deity, and through this weakness, a taking away of this idol, the Afro-American can effect a bloodless revolution. But he must be taught his power as an industrial and financial factor. He must be shown that the turning of his money into his own coffers strengthens himself; and that a religious staying off of the growing evil of the race—the excursion business—will do more to overthrow the odious Jim Crow laws of our statute books than all the railroad suits which are prosecuted. Who is to teach him this—line upon line, precept upon precept, example upon example? Neither the teacher whose work will not be discernable for years hence, nor the minister be he ever so able, for them it may be said as franklin said of Grecian and Roman orators—“they can only speak to the number of citizens capable of being assembled within reach of their voice—now by the press we can speak to the nations.”
So great is the race need for instruction along the lines of education, of money-saving and character-making; of learning trades, cultivating self-dependence; of building good broad foundations upon which their citizenship is to stand; so imperative is the necessity for leading the race up to the clear heights of thought, then down into the valley of action, that if persecuted and driven from one place, we must set up the printing press in another and continue the great work till the evils we suffer are removed or the people better prepared to fight their own battles. Laboring to fill our columns with matter beneficial and calculated to stimulate thought, and cultivate race reading, the next move is to take all legitimate steps to circulate our journals among the people we hope to benefit. Many of our best journals among the people we hope to benefit. Many of our best journals adopt the first plan while ignoring the second. They do not seem to grasp the truth that they must not only champion race rights, but cultivate a taste for reading among the people whose champions they are.
As is well known, the requirements of Southern journalism make it impossible to always dwell in the section it hopes to represent, and show the true state of affairs. To read the white papers the Afro-American is a savage that is getting away from the restraint of the inherent fear of the white man which controlled his passions, and from whom women and children now flee as from a wild beast. This impression has gained ground from the white papers, and has blasted race reputation in many quarters. The Afro-American journal has not troubled itself to counteract that opinion—those of the South because they dare not in many cases, and those of other sections seeming to care not. But not only the reputation of individuals but that of the race is involved. The clearing of this odium attached to the race name is not only the duty of one section but belongs to all, and the National Press Association should no longer sit idly waiting for the garbled accounts of the Associated Press, which it in turn gives the world.
A white, not an Afro-American journal—the Chicago Tribune—kept sufficient tab of the lynchings of the past eight years, to be in position to say to the world that only one-third of the enormous lynchings record of that time was for the crime of rape. Beyond a word or so of compliment to the writer, the exposure of the true inwardness of affairs in the South regarding this foul charge, which appeared in the New York Age of June 25, was almost unnoticed by race journals. Only one, the Omaha Progress, published the statement in full. It was not expected that Southern journals would, but there are many of them in other sections which could have done so. The writer thought until then that our journals only needed the facts to publish, and upon which to predicate a demand that public sentiment call a halt. That a matter of such vital race moment should be ignored by those whose duty it is to correct the growing impression so hurtful to the race’s good name, was surprising, to say the least.
So frequent and serious has the grave charge of rape become, there should be full investigation of every such accusation which is considered sufficient excuse for the most diabolical outrage and torture. Afro-American Southern journalism cannot do it and hope to continue existence; but this united body as an association, can do something toward changing public opinion and moulding public sentiment in our favor. This is the work of the association, as such, and while I was only expected to speak of the requirements of Southern journalism, I trust I may be pardoned for deviating long enough to implore this convention here assembled not to adjourn until some practical, tangible step to that end shall have been taken. For years this association has met and concentrated itself with talking, and we returned to our respective homes with no tangible or practical work in hand—until the thinking portion of the race has classed press contentions with all other race conventions which meet, resolve and dissolve. If in face of daily occurrences we can still do only this, the charge against us is not without foundation. The time for action has come. Let the association tax itself to hire a detective, who shall go to the scene of each lynching, get the facts as they exist in each case of outrage—especially where the charge of rape is made—furnish them to the different papers of the association and those so situated shall publish them to the world. Money should be placed in the treasury at this session for that purpose, and a tax assessed by which it shall be kept up. It will pay from every point of view. You are thus in the position, despite the connivance of press agents, telegraph operators, and civil authorities to secure correct information, and vindicate the race from the charge of bestiality which stands before the world to-day practically unchallenged. A correspondent of The Age did it in Paris, Texas, in the month of September, and uncovered a tale of cruelty, outrage and murder against the race which would make stick the heart of a savage. Our race papers since have used that account extensively.
This could be done in in every case, and for every garbled and slanderous dispatch sent out by the Associated Press, this association would be in position to match with the true account of these race disturbances and lynchings.
Sheridan exclaimed on one occasion: “Give me a tyrant king, give me a hostile House of Lords, give me a corrupt House of Commons,—give me the press and I will overturn them all.” Gentlemen of the National Press Association, you have the press—what will you do with it? Upon your answer depends the future welfare of your race. Can you stand in comparative idleness, in purposeless wrangling, when there is earnest, practical, united work to be done?