The Courageous Life of Ida B. Wells – Feminist Frequency

The Courageous Life of Ida B. Wells

#Ordinary Women

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Ebony Aster

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Few stories are as dramatic as that of of Ida B. Wells, a woman who was born a slave in Mississippi in the midst of the Civil War, and became a daring investigative reporter and civil rights crusader who would one day be called the “loudest and most persistent voice for truth” in an era of injustice.

This episode is generously sponsored by The Harnisch Foundation, an organization whose mission it is to create a more fair and equitable world by investing in gender and racial diversity.

Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History explores the lives and accomplishments of fascinating women who defied gender stereotypes, but often found themselves pushed to the sidelines or erased from history books that weren’t ready to acknowledge them. This series is made possible by generous donations to our Seed & Spark crowdfunding campaign for the project.

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Full Transcript →

Few stories are as dramatic as that of of Ida B. Wells, a woman who was born a slave in Mississippi in the midst of the Civil War, and became a daring investigative reporter and civil rights crusader who would one day be called the “loudest and most persistent voice for truth” in an era of injustice.

This episode is generously sponsored by The Harnisch Foundation, an organization whose mission it is to create a more fair and equitable world by investing in gender and racial diversity.

Ordinary Women: Daring to Defy History explores the lives and accomplishments of fascinating women who defied gender stereotypes, but often found themselves pushed to the sidelines or erased from history books that weren’t ready to acknowledge them. This series is made possible by generous donations to our Seed & Spark crowdfunding campaign for the project.

← Series Archive

Donate

Feminist Frequency analyzes the connections between popular culture, the current political climate, and societal issues such as gender, race, and sexuality.

You can help us speak out against the normalization of sexual assault and harassment, racism and bigotry, and advocate for more inclusive media. All of our work is completely free and available to anyone with an internet connect.

We rely on contributions from people like you to keep it that way.

Donate now. Help us continue this work.

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Thank you so much for supporting Feminist Frequency! Your generosity allows us to continue challenging unjust representations, and producing online videos and educational projects that are both accessible and completely free.

We'll send you a formal acknowledgement for tax purposes shortly via email. But we wanted to be sure to tell you, one more time, how grateful we are for your support.

Our work is critical now, perhaps more than ever before - and we can’t do this without you.

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Transcript

There’s something irresistible about underdog stories, where remarkable people rise from humble beginnings to do incredible things against all the odds. But few stories are as dramatic as that of of Ida B. Wells, a woman who was born a slave in Mississippi in the midst of the Civil War, and became a daring investigative reporter and civil rights crusader who would one day be called the “loudest and most persistent voice for truth” in an era of injustice.

From an early age, Wells carried exceptional burdens with exceptional courage. She became the head of her household at the age of 16, when both of her parents died suddenly from yellow fever. In order to support her five brothers and sisters, she curtailed her education and started working as a schoolteacher in rural Mississippi.

When was she was 21 years old, Wells boarded a train to Memphis and seated herself in the first class ladies car, only to be told that black women were restricted to second class. Not only did she bite the conductor who tried to remove her, she soon filed a discrimination lawsuit against the railroad company. She won the initial case, and while it was overturned on appeal, an article she wrote about the experience helped launch her career as a journalist.

Wells’s life changed forever in 1892, when her friend Thomas Moss was murdered by a white mob in Memphis along with two other black men. Their brutal killings inspired Wells to speak out against the horrors of lynching, an increasingly common tool of terror used against black people in the decades after the Civil War.

Black men were often falsely accused of rape in order to justify their murders, but in a series of widely-read articles and pamphlets, Wells argued that lynching had little to do with protecting the honor of women and everything to do with protecting the power of southern white men. Like so many civil rights leaders who would follow in her footsteps — including the civil rights leaders of today — her criticisms were powerful because they took aim not just at the misdeeds of individuals, but at the unexamined institutions of racism and power behind them.

Her groundbreaking analysis changed the national conversation around lynching and even her future mentor Frederick Douglass called his own writing on the subject “feeble in comparison.”

Wells was the co-owner and editor of a black newspaper in Memphis. After one of her anti-lynching articles “displeased” the white community, an angry mob stormed the office of the paper and destroyed it. Faced with death threats, Wells started carrying a pistol in her purse, but refused to back down from her anti-lynching campaign. She said it was better to “die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap.”

After that she relocated to New York, where she began to publish investigative journalism for an even larger audience, including pamphlets that collected statistical documentation of lynching in the South. Her popular anti-lynching speeches eventually took her to Britain where white audiences seemed far more outraged than many of their American counterparts. Her overseas speaking tour inspired international condemnation of lynching,particularly from British newspapers and politicians, and elevated Wells to the most visible national leader in the anti-lynching movement.

Although Wells often criticized herself for being stubborn and hot-tempered, those same qualities made her a fiery orator and a relentless crusader against injustice. Faced with death threats from southern whites and criticisms from moderate black reformers who considered her too radical, Wells refused to compromise her ideals for the sake of comfort, convenience or even personal safety.

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them,” wrote Wells, who never failed to speak unpleasant truths, even when it cost her friends or potential allies. Although surrounded by hostility and threats from people who wanted to punish her outspokenness because of her race and her gender, she refused to be silenced.

Although she fought for women’s rights Wells was often disappointed by white suffragists who considered racial issues a distraction from the fight against sexism. Some even endorsed segregation. During the famous women’s suffrage parade of 1913, when black women were told to walk at the back, Wells simply waited till the march started and defiantly joined her state’s delegation. Similarly, she was frustrated by those in the black community who saw women’s rights as unimportant to the fight against racism. Caught between the struggles of her race and her gender, Wells often felt like she fought alone.

Although she had many suitors, and withstood enormous social pressure to marry, Wells remained single throughout her twenties. In her early thirties, she finally met her match in Ferdinand Barnett, a black lawyer who was equally passionate about social justice, and a man who wholeheartedly supported her career. They married and had four children together, and while Wells would eventually step down from her full-time position as a newspaper editor, she continued her work as a reformer until the day she died.

When she passed away in 1931 at the age of 69, Ida B. Wells had profoundly changed the way people looked at race, gender and violence in America, and transformed herself from a slave who was regarded as property to someone once described as a woman who “walked as if she owned the world.”

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Feminist Frequency analyzes the connections between popular culture, the current political climate, and societal issues such as gender, race, and sexuality.

You can help us speak out against the normalization of sexual assault and harassment, racism and bigotry, and advocate for more inclusive media. All of our work is completely free and available to anyone with an internet connect.

We rely on contributions from people like you to keep it that way.

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Thank you so much for supporting Feminist Frequency! Your generosity allows us to continue challenging unjust representations, and producing online videos and educational projects that are both accessible and completely free.

We'll send you a formal acknowledgement for tax purposes shortly via email. But we wanted to be sure to tell you, one more time, how grateful we are for your support.

Our work is critical now, perhaps more than ever before - and we can’t do this without you.

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