Foreign Affairs
The Full Journey

Ida B. Wells

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Ida B. Wells, in her late 19th century anti-lynching campaign, laid the groundwork for newly organized civil rights activities.  Which is why she is the second "Apostle of the New Abolition" in Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition about the black social gospel movement (Henry McNeal Turner was the first, and here is my blog post about him).

Wells' family was devastated by an epidemic, leaving her as a young woman to care for her siblings.  She became the first African-American woman to own and run a newspaper, in Memphis.  She eventually had to flee the South for safe haven because of her focus on lynching.  

Lynching was "justified" by white citizens as a defense of white women from rape. Wells called attention to why that was not true, but directly addressed the sexual thesis, which most people ignored.  Writes Dorrien,

On her sexual thesis, Wells was simultaneously emphatic, ambivalent, and repulsed.  The leading citizens that burned Coy and show Fowler were "notorious" for preferring black women as sexual partners, Wells contended.  They mythologized southern belles as pure-minded Christian ladies lacking sexual desire, and they vengefully punished the black men who dared to treat white women as sexual beings.  They prated about defending the honor of white women while betraying them as partners, preferring black women for sex, as they had during slavery.  White men were the barbarians in this picture; white women were more sexual than their husbands dared to imagine; black women were victimized by the predatory sexuality of white men; and black men caught hell for all of it, especially if they were not careful.

Dorrien concludes that "Everything about her argument was incendiary, or revelatory, depending on the reader."  Her opponents chose to attack her character and compelled her to flee Memphis.  

She went on the national and international lecture circuit and became a key organizer, though she often clashed with others in the black and progressive communities.  She in particular called out the latter for their hypocrisies.  "So many Christian leaders of her time were admired for their social virtue despite demonstrating little or none in the area of racial justice."  He write at length about her feud with Frances Willard.  Willard and, to my surprise Elizabeth Cady Stanton even, used racist tropes in their arguments for white women's rights (Anthony did not; she was a friend of Wells).  "Wells  was starting to become famous for saying harsh things about people who were renowned for their liberality and goodwill."

The end of her organizing career got caught up in what became the feud between Booker T. Washington and his allies and W. E. B. DuBois and his as to whether to accommodate or agitate (to put it too simply).  Wells lived till 1931, but was long forgotten before her death, being left out of memoirs and histories of the era.  In the 1960's she was rediscovered and her autobiography finally published in 1970, lifting her into the canon of civil rights history.

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