Blueprint for resistance: Ida B. Wells was more than a journalist and educator

A young Ida B. Wells-Barnett, in a photograph by Mary Garrity from circa 1893.
By April Eberhardt The Black Lens

Ida B. Wells is the blueprint for resistance. Emboldened to fight back through the power of the pen, Ida B. Wells prioritized her community in the face of Jim Crow and gave power to truth. Wells personified the popular catch phrase used in modern day anti-bullying campaigns: “if you see something, say something.”

At the turn of the century, Wells stood as a vanguard for change. Wells was a journalist, abolitionist and feminist who led an anti-lynching crusade and was integral in groups striving for African American justice, including cofounding the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

It is on her legacy that independent newspapers such as The Black Lens stand. Wells exercised the very rights denied her through the first amendment; she dared to hold the government accountable to her people through the press. Knowing that she had a target on her back for speaking the truth, Wells strategically used a moniker at times to maintain anonymity. This allowed her to continue to investigate, expose, and denounce the sins of racism through journalism in an effort to rouse the nation’s conscience.

Wells risked her life to help save the lives of others and forced America out of oblivion by turning whispers into shouts. She refused to kowtow to the lie of racism, to the normalization of terror against her people, holding true to her own words: “Burning and torture here lasts but a little while, but if I die with a lie on my soul, I shall be tortured forever. I am innocent.”

When Night Riders in hoods haunted Black families in the humid air of Southern twilight, she was one who dared to avenge the innocently slain. One who was courageously unafraid to speak the truth about murderers set out to destroy her people. She risked all to protest lynchings and the mutilation of falsely accused Black people, primarily Black men. These same lynchings that White families would gather in the town square to watch in the name of entertainment.

Born enslaved in Mississippi in 1862, Wells saw early examples of grassroots activism through her father who was involved in the Freedman’s Aid Society. He started Shaw University which was later renamed Rust College, one of several early historically Black colleges and universities formed in the late 1800s. While attending Rust College in 1882, Wells realized the power of her voice through print media when she wrote passionate anti-lynching editorials and exposed other aspects of discrimination, becoming the co-owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight newspaper.

In 1892, after losing three friends to a white mob in a triple lynching, Wells traversed southern states to investigate serial incidents of lynching. The result of this investigation was the publication “Southern Horrors. Lynch Law In All Its Phases.” Wells permanently moved to the North for her own safety after her press was set afire and she was run out of Tennessee. Controversy did not deter her; she continued to fight for justice.

In 1894, she helped establish the British Anti-Lynching Society, crossing the globe to galvanize others in the fight. In 1895, Wells published another work detailing chronic lynchings for her Northern audience titled “The Red Record.” There was no room for denial in Wells’ America, and she made sure that the North was fully aware of the atrocities happening in the South. In 1896, Wells co-founded the National Association for Colored Women. In 1898, she challenged President William McKinley to make reforms to end lynching.

Wells challenged racialized fear and hate and understood the power of grassroots activism. She waited for no one’s approval, sometimes even at the chagrin of her contemporaries. Uncompromising when it came to advocating for Black people, Wells said the hard things. She did not acquiesce to respectability politics. She was an aberration to the expectation of the docile subordinate. Her words brought discomfort, by emphasizing and exposing the true culprit of the crimes that caused discomfort. With resounding confidence, she defied White supremacy and spoke openly against the hypocrisy of mob justice and the literal hunting of Black people. Ida B. Wells exemplifies what Black women can do with their talent and passion for their people.