Speaking Truth to Power, Taking Risks

Ida B. Wells published an editorial on her investigation on lynching in her Memphis paper, The Free Speech. When her office was destroyed by a mob, she wrote a more detailed account in the New York Age a black newspaper in New York City. On October 26, 1892, Wells published this research in a pamphlet titled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. Having examined many accounts of lynchings due to the alleged “rape of white women,” she concluded that Southerners cried rape as an excuse to hide their real reasons for lynchings: black economic progress, which threatened white Southerners with competition, and white ideas of enforcing black second-class status in the society. Black economic progress was a contemporary issue in the South, and in many states whites worked to suppress black progress. In this period at the turn of the century, Southern states, starting with Mississippi in 1890, passed laws and/or new constitutions to disenfranchise most black people and many poor white people through use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other devices. Wells-Barnett recommended that black people use arms to defend against lynching.

She followed-up with greater research and detail in The Red Record (1895), a 100-page pamphlet describing lynching in the United States since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. It also covered black peoples’ struggles in the South since the Civil War. The Red Record explored the alarmingly high rates of lynching in the United States (which was at a peak from 1880 to 1930). Wells-Barnett said that during Reconstruction, most Americans outside the South did not realize the growing rate of violence against black people in the South. She believed that during slavery, white people had not committed as many attacks because of the economic labour value of slaves. Wells noted that, since slavery time, “ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, [through lynching] without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution.”

Frederick Douglass had written an article noting three eras of “Southern barbarism,” and the excuses that whites claimed in each period.

Wells-Barnett explored these in detail in her The Red Record.

During slavery time, she noted that whites worked to “repress and stamp out alleged ‘race riots.'” or suspected slave rebellions, usually killing black people in far higher proportions than any white casualties. Once the Civil War ended, white people feared black people, who were in the majority in many areas. White people acted to control them and suppress them by violence.
During the Reconstruction Era white people lynched black people as part of mob efforts to suppress black political activity and re-establish white supremacy after the war. They feared “Negro Domination” through voting and taking office. Wells-Barnett urged black people in high-risk areas to move away to protect their families.
She noted that whites frequently claimed that black men had “to be killed to avenge their assaults upon women.” She noted that white people assumed that any relationship between a white woman and a black man was a result of rape. But, given power relationships, it was much more common for white men to take sexual advantage of poor black women. She stated: “Nobody in this section of the country believes the old threadbare lie that black men rape white women.” Wells connected lynching to sexual violence showing how the myth of the black man’s lust for white women led to murder of African American men.
Wells-Barnett gave 14 pages of statistics related to lynching cases committed from 1892 to 1895; she also included pages of graphic accounts detailing specific lynchings. She notes that her data was taken from articles by white correspondents, white press bureaus, and white newspapers. The Red Record was a huge pamphlet, and had far-reaching influence in the debate about lynching. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and The Red Record’s accounts of these lynchings grabbed the attention of Northerners who knew little about lynching or accepted the common explanation that black men deserved this fate. Generally southern states and white juries refused to indict any perpetrators for lynching, although they were frequently known and sometimes shown in the photographs being made more frequently of such events.

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