By: Scott RossPublished: October 26, 2022

Ida B. Wells

In 1878, during a visit to her grandmother's home, Ida B. Wells, then just 16, learned that her parents and baby brother had been killed by a yellow fever epidemic back home in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Determined to keep her siblings together under one roof, she took a job teaching, eventually moving the family to Memphis.

On May 4, 1883, some seventy years before anyone had heard of Rosa Parks, Wells got dragged out of a first class train car and told to sit in the already rammed smoking car. In the mood for exactly zero bullshit and every bit her politically active parents' daughter, she sued. Though she originally won her case, the ruling was overturned on appeal.

Unbowed, Wells continued to fight for justice, writing under the pen name lola about the evils of Jim Crow, a side gig that ultimately led to her dismissal from the Memphis school system.

But after Thomas Moss, her godson's father was dragged from jail and shot dead by an angry mob, Wells turned her pen toward the practice of lynching, “an excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and ‘the nigger down.'" These murders were often "justified" by fabricated allegations of unwanted sexual advances by black men toward white women, though in reality Wells found that when there were sexual interactions between black men and white women, it was consensual.

On October 26, 1892, Wells published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, a collection of her essays on the subject, in which she decried "the poor blind Afro-American Sampsons who suffer themselves to be betrayed by white Delilahs." She laid out her thesis in no uncertain terms in her preface, a call to arms for all Americans:

It is with no pleasure I have dipped my hands in the corruption here exposed. Somebody must show that the Afro-American race is more sinned against than sinning, and it seems to have fallen upon me to do so. The awful death-roll that Judge Lynch is calling every week is appalling, not only because of the lives it takes, the rank cruelty and outrage to the victims, but because of the prejudice it fosters and the stain it places against the good name of a weak race.

The Afro-American is not a bestial race. If this work can contribute in any way toward proving this, and at the same time arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen, and punishment by law for the lawless, I shall feel I have done my race a service. Other considerations are of minor importance.

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