Week Nine: Outrage, Activism, Idealism, and Modern Leadership

Assignment for Tuesday’s course

This week of Dr. Sandridge’s course, we will be discussing relatively modern leadership and its relationship with outrage, activism, and idealism. We have chosen investigative journalist and civil right pioneer Ida B. Wells and her many publications exposing the cruelties of Southern lynching as the subject of our discussion.

Wells was born in Holly Springs, Mississippi in 1862. Her father was a mixed-race politician, whose father himself was a white slave owner. This political exposition in her early life, combined with the tragic deaths of both of her parents when she was only 16, seemingly gave Ida B. Wells the boldness to write in her own publication, entitled Free Speech, about several injustices that she was made aware of and herself experienced. Her inflammatory comments caused an outrage in the white male community of Tennessee, where she then lived and worked. A mob came and destroyed her office, causing her to move to Chicago.

Wells would go on to document her research about Southern lynchings in her pamphlet entitled Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. She exposed accused rape as the overwhelming cause of the lynchings of so many African American, Southern men. Wells used her extensive knowledge of the subject, as well as small doses of satire and euphemism to expose to whoever would read her pamphlet the unabridged truth of the matter. This boldness in activism and journalism was unheard of at that point, and the fact that Wells was a woman added fuel to the white fire. Other publications in her area, threatened to “brand [the editors of Free Speech] in the forehead with a hot iron and perform upon [them] a surgical operation with a pair of tailor’s shears.”

Wells’s main arguments against the existing lynching laws during that time were that African American men were, indeed, not raping these women and that these murders were just cases of brutal and hateful racism successfully disguised as a defense of the honor of white women. After listing several lynchings in several different cities in the South, Wells provides multiple cases in which innocent young black men were killed due to the “deliberate [lies]” of white women. She documents, specifically, a case of a southern wife who, in fear of the soiling of her reputation and marriage, lied about an affair that she had been having with an unsuspecting black man. The truth was that she helped her carry some packages home on a rainy day, after which she invited him back into her home and commenced their sexual affair. The woman confessed that she had no desire to resist, but would go on to tell her husband that she had been raped. The black man would serve four long years away from his own family before the white husband, who happened to be a minister, had him acquitted.

Wells wrote that cases like these were common in the south and that the common innocence of the black man proved that the defense of the white woman as an excuse for the murders was nothing more than a facade. Wells quotes multiple Southern newspapers and expertly exposes the true fault that the white men in control were finding with so many black men: they were simply intimidated. The Daily Commercial and Evening Scimitar of Memphis, Tennessee, and the Memphis Evening Scimitar, specifically, were quoted. Of course, both editorials claimed that there was a direct correlation between the alleged rapes and the lynchings that followed, but they also ended up telling on themselves. Both editorials mentioned a newfound boldness in African Americans ever since they had been freed from slavery: “The generation of Negroes which have grown up since the war have lost in large measure the traditional and wholesome awe of the white race which kept the Negroes in subjection.” One of the most flagrant statements they made was their belief that the disrespect and aggression that whites had started to experience in the corresponding towns was due to the fact that blacks were educated just enough “to realize how hopelessly their race [was] behind the other in everything that makes a great people.”

Wells proposes that African Americans defend themselves from these murders and other civil injustices by boycotting the buses and railroads and by keeping themselves armed. Just as meticulously as she displayed the cases of unjust lynchings, she provided examples of railroad companies in Covington, Kentucky being financially burdened because of the fact that the majority of the African Americans in that town were refusing to ride. Wells asserts that the reason why these boycotts had been and would continue to be successful was that “The white man’s dollar [was] his god,” and that African Americans were the backbones of Southern economy and industry. She also reminds the reader that the only time a group of accused African Americans survived an attempted lynching was when he had a rifle to defend himself. She urges readers to fully understand the power of the firearm and says that white aggressors would hold more value for the African American life if they knew that they were just as likely to die as any black person that they would attempt to kill.

Wells’s approach to her leadership at that time had quite a few similarities and differences to that of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata. Like that of Lysistrata, Wells’s mental activation and call to leadership come from a literal outrage pointed towards an injustice that she saw constantly being inflicted against her people. She also coerced those who she would lead to cut off certain privileges from their oppressors. While one set of privileges was purely sexual, and the other monetary, they both undoubtedly benefited both the oppressed and the oppressors. Despite this, both female leaders held the sophrosune to fully comprehend the value of self-restraint in their own respective situations. Their leadership styles differ most likely due to the drastic difference in their outrages, and to the nature of the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed.

One of Wells’s most powerful and memorable lines in this pamphlet was “This statement is not a shield for the despoiler of virtue, nor altogether a defense for the poor blind Afro-American Sampsons who suffer themselves to be betrayed by white Delilahs. It is a contribution to truth, an array of facts, the perusal of which it is hoped will stimulate this great American Republic to demand that justice be done though the heavens fall.” This brief couple of sentences are important because they say so much about the state of affairs and how Wells goes about understanding the situation. She knows that many of these lynchings are completely unprovoked and that many victims only found themselves in peril because of the false rumors and “suppositions” that so often drove the white male mobs that were being allowed to raid jailhouses and lynch prisoners. She also knows that many victims found themselves in these same perilous situations because of their confirmed relationships, however consensual, with white women. She believes that they “suffer themselves to be betrayed” by these women meaning that they have basically put themselves in their morbid positions. Among other things, she hopes that her exposition of the gory truth of the matter will stop her race’s men from being so easily enticed. She sums all of this up with a glaze of comedy that came from her use of such racially stereotypical names.

Another great line came at the end of the pamphlet: “Nothing is more definitely settled than he must act for himself. I have shown how he may employ the boycott, emigration and the press, and I feel that by a combination of all these agencies can be effectually stamped out lynch law, that last relic of barbarism and slavery. ‘The gods help those who help themselves.’” Here she clearly states that her race’s only path to civil and lawful justice would force them to fully step out of the cringing and submission that for so long had been beaten into them, and realize the power of their own wealth and contribution to the nation’s economy.

It is easier to tell Ida B. Wells’s age by reading this pamphlet than her gender. Her slight use of comedy and unabridged and intentional inclusion of such inflammatory fact and opinion could only come from someone who had such a youthful combination of knowledge and ambition.

Wells’s most direct reference to the Christian Bible came when she equated the white man’s dollar to his god. She satirically commented on her oppressor’s devotion to monetary gain, how this lust had been a key ingredient to the hateful relationship that blacks and whites had experienced for centuries leading up unto that point.

Wells knew how to make a reference! Throughout the pamphlet, she referred to a plethora of well respected outside sources, from daily newsletters to court records. These obviously increased her credibility and made it even clearer that she was passionate and well read in her subject. Wells’s pamphlet was also meticulously organized. After she carefully uncovered the national crisis that was the lynch law and revealed that her own property and publications were destroyed because of her very public denouncement of it, she then encouraged her readers across the country to do what proved to work in Kentucky and in Florida. Wells was also able to show off a little bit of her clout! Her shoutout (which, of course, came directly after the preface) from Frederick Douglass undoubtedly increased her reader’s confidence in what she had to say, and thus boosted her argument. If I could incorporate these skills into my writings, I would be satisfied.