What Would Ida Do?
| March 19, 2009
At a time in many ways parallel, though more perilous, than our own, Ida B. Wells stood up and spoke out. For Women’s History Month, her biographer describes her complex understanding of how race, class and gender play out in the politics of change.
I can’t help thinking how Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)—antilynching activist, suffragist, settlement-house founder, and journalist—would have had a wonderful vantage point to advise those of us living in the present. She lived through an “unnecessary” war (in Cuba) driven, in part, by faulty intelligence; a near-collapse of the financial system amid great disparities of wealth, urgent calls for reform, political advances of women and black men; the rise of labor; and technological advances that forever changed the country. Wells died during the Depression in Chicago, a calamity that threw a third of the city’s black population on relief.
It was Wells’s antilynching campaign, begun in 1892 in Memphis, Tennessee, that provided her with the activist framework that underlined her own career as a feminist reformer. Wells was the first activist to publicly articulate the relationship between racial violence and racial progress; as well as understand the nexus between lynching and views of women that were being challenged by 20th-century notions.
Wells came of age in Mississippi when Victorianism—with its ideas regarding gender, the meaning of progress, and public behavior—settled with a “vengeance” as one historian put it. Newly freed African Americans also embraced these ideas and by the 1880s, the illiteracy rates of blacks diminished so dramatically that a sustainable black press supported by an African American readership became a reality. During the decade, 200 black newspapers were published every week across the country and columns by black women such as Wells—who expressed the need for a “true womanhood” among the race—were viewed as an essential part of the press’s progressive outlook.
Moreover, the 1890s and the first years of the new century saw black women and men found and lead religious and economic institutions, serve on citywide school boards, earn the first Phi Beta Kappa recognition at Harvard, administer well-financed institutions of higher education, publish important fiction and nonfiction works, and enjoy hundreds of political appointments under Republican administrations. The 1890s saw the rise of the nation’s most powerful black leader: Booker T. Washington, head of Tuskegee Institute, who stood for racial harmony and personal responsibility.
But this was also the period when the number of blacks lynched exceeded that of whites for the first time in the history of the practice that had begun during the Revolutionary War years. More than 3,000 African American men and women fell victim to lynching between 1882 and 1918. While leaders such as Booker Washington insisted that antisocial behavior of the lower classes drove lynching, Wells understood that blacks of all classes were vulnerable in a new industrial age of economic competition, social Darwinism, and the inability of white supremacists to cope with the modern tensions of not only race, but of class, gender and sexuality. In other words, 20th-century America was quite capable of facilitating racial progress while simultaneously enabling racial violence that was imposed not only on individuals but upon entire black communities in major cities in both the North and South. Thus Wells understood before many of her peers that education and accumulation of wealth were not in themselves agents of change; and her racial strategies went beyond racial uplift to embrace protest, including civil disobedience among the laboring classes, and self-defense.
This view distinguished Wells from many of her progressive peers, black and white, who were wary about mobilizing the non-elite, grass-roots masses. She nonetheless was determined to apply her ideological perspective in Chicago, where she married a like-minded lawyer, Ferdinand Barnett, in 1895 and founded the Negro Fellowship League, a settlement house for southern migrants; was the first adult probate officer in Chicago’s criminal justice system; and worked with Marcus Garvey, as well as A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids.
If Wells had a distinct idea about the role of class in reform, she also had particular views regarding women. As a result, in part, of her knowledge about the false charges of rape that precipitated many lynchings, Wells, unlike many reformers of her time, was no believer in the inherent moral superiority of women. Consequently, she did not share the view with many white suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony, whom she admired, that they should strategically distance themselves from black women in order not to inflame white southern legislators who were needed to pass a woman’s suffrage amendment. Such a strategy assumed, as Anthony noted, that once white women got the vote, their essentialist goodness would resolve the issues of race, among other needed reforms. As Wells’s opinion and activities conveyed, one could not be effective by pushing for reform of any singular category of race, class or gender over another, for they were all inextricably linked.
In 1913, when women won partial suffrage in Illinois, Wells founded the Alpha Suffrage Club (ASC), the first black women’s organization of its kind in Chicago. She represented the organization when she joined the Illinois contingent who went to Washington, D.C. to participate in the spectacular suffrage parade in March of that year on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. However, when the predominantly white Illinois delegation was told that the national organizers did not want African Americans to march alongside them, Wells insisted on doing so anyway; and when she inserted herself into the middle of the group on parade day, two white suffragists, Belle Squire and Virginia Brooks, defiantly marched on either side of her in support.
The ASC successfully lobbied state legislators not to pass discriminatory bills and, led by Wells, the group helped register black and white, male and female, voters. In 1915 the ASC was instrumental in the election of Chicago’s first black alderman, Oscar De Priest. The organization also came to the aid of women candidates. When De Priest subsequently became the first African American elected to the U.S. Congress since Reconstruction, he served alongside Ruth Hanna McCormick, who also enjoyed the support of black women and in 1929 became the first woman elected to that body from Illinois. In 1930, Wells, herself, ran as an independent reformer for an Illinois state senate seat. She was unsuccessful but proud of the fact that she had furthered the political aspirations of progressive men as well as black and white women through her long-term organized efforts.
The changes she saw, under circumstances much more dire than our own, made her optimistic about this country’s capacity to reform. I don’t even think she would have been surprised by the election of Barack Obama or the presence of a First Lady such as Michelle. But she would also want to remind us of the revolutionary-inspired phrase that became the title of the last chapter of her autobiography: eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.