By Shea Howell
July 17, 2016
The killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile deeply saddened many of us. Michelle Alexander captured these feelings when she wrote of her own struggle “to find word to express what I thought and felt,” wanting “to say something that hasn’t been said a hundred times before.” Then she concluded, “It finally dawned on me that there is nothing to say that hasn’t been said before.” Then, after hearing of the shootings of 11 more people in Dallas, she said, “I could not bring myself to recycle old truths. Something more is required. But what?”
In thinking about this question I find my thoughts turning to Ida B. Wells. Wells was an African American teacher, writer, activist, and organizer. She was born into slavery in Mississippi 154 years ago this week. After the death of her parents, Wells became a teacher to keep her family together. Following her parents example, she became an activist, journalist and co owner of Free Speech and Headlight. There she began to document lynching.
In 1892 she wrote an editorial after eight men were lynched in one week. She attacked the idea that these lynchings were justified as white revenge for the charge of rape. Instead she argued lynchings were a cruel and vicious tool of social control.
Her editorial caused the “leading citizens” of Memphis to organize an effort to lynch her and her co-owner. She comments, “Threats of lynching were freely indulged, not by the lawless element upon with the deviltry of the South is usually saddled—but by the leading businessmen, in their leading business centre.”
Forced out of the South, she published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases in 1892. In her preface she explains her efforts are “a contribution to truth, a 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.”
In 1895 Wells accelerated the anti-lynching campaign with the publication of The Red Record, a detailed account of lynchings. Section 5 is entitled “Lynching for Anything or Nothing.” Here she explains:
Perhaps the most characteristic feature of this record of lynch law for the year 1893, is the remarkable fact that five human beings were lynched and that the matter was considered of so little importance that the powerful press bureaus of the country did not consider the matter of enough importance to ascertain the causes for which they were hanged. It tells the world, with perhaps greater emphasis than any other feature of the record, that Lynch Law has become so common in the United States the finding of the dead body of a Negro, suspended between heaven and earth to the limb of a tree, is of so slight importance that neither the civil authorities nor press agencies consider the mater worth investigating.”
Wells reminds of how deeply America is steeped in violence, how much we have to unravel, how little we care for the lives of so many.
She offers us a challenge and a hope. She believed if we had the courage to look at the full truth of our ways of life, we would find our way to a more just and compassionate world.
That challenge echoed through the century to Black Lives Matters. Three years ago this week, the courageous women of Black Lives Matters responded to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. They call upon us to face the full truth of the violence we are choosing to protect power and privilege. We again have an opportunity to choose a different way.